The timing of Disney's (DIS 3.30%) quarterly earnings call on Thursday afternoon was perfect. Just hours before Disney was to offer up and discuss its fresh financials, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that fully vaccinated folks can resume indoor and outdoor activities without wearing a mask or staying socially distanced.
The CDC update sent ripples through the amusement park industry and within hours Pennsylvania's Hersheypark lifted its requirements for face coverings and social distancing for guests who have completed the COVID-19 vaccination process. Would Disney -- the world's largest theme park operator -- follow suit? The short answer is "not yet," but we could be there a lot sooner than you might think.
Behind the mask
Disney World in Florida has been open for 10 months. The original Disneyland in California finally unlocked its turnstiles two weeks ago. Neither resort has had a problem selling the limited number of daily admissions available, even with face covering and social distancing requirements putting a clinical damper on the experience. It's the new normal, and Disney has done its part to make sure that its busy gated attractions aren't a hotbed of pandemic-spreading activity.
Even before Thursday's surprising CDC announcement, Disney and its smaller rivals were already starting to pull back on safety regulations. This week alone we've seen Disney World eliminate temperature screenings at park entrances and now it's eliminating the floor markers that kept guests 6 feet apart in ride queues.
Masks remain the most cumbersome of requirements, but it's hard to argue against face coverings when COVID-19 has taken nearly 600,000 lives in this country alone. However, with the CDC now siding with studies showing that the risks are minimal for folks once two weeks past the final vaccination dose things are going to start returning to normal fairly quickly.
"Obviously, today's guidance that we got from the CDC in terms of those that were vaccinated do not necessarily need to wear masks anymore, both outdoors and indoors, is very big news for us, particularly if anybody's been in Florida in the middle of summer with a mask on," CEO Bob Chapek said during Thursday's call. "That could be quite daunting so we think that's going to make for an even more pleasant experience."
In short, Disney World will need time to consider the new CDC guidance and how it can be implemented in its parks. What will happen to children younger than 12 that currently aren't eligible for the vaccine? Will it be feasible or even legal for Disney to require proof of vaccination? Some questions will be harder to answer than others, but things are starting to open up one way or another.
Disney World is immediately increasing capacity at its theme parks, up from the 35% cap it had before. Chapek's language also makes it seem like masks will be gone by next month when the peak summer travel season starts. If not, he just gave his marketing team a doozy of an assignment trying to push Disney World getaways this summer after pointing out how challenging masks are to wear in the middle of Florida's hot and humid season.
With the pent-up demand from folks stuck at home for the past year and change, it's not a surprise to see many travel and tourism stocks start springing back to life as things start returning to normal. Disney World won't take long to get back to peak performance, especially with a major 18-month celebration in the works to celebrate the resort turning 50 come October. It was widely expected that safety requirements would be all but gone by then, but now it's starting to seem like you'll be able to party like it's 2019 as soon as this summer at Disney World. It's something to smile about -- especially if you're fully vaccinated and can show fellow park guests that smile soon.