It didn't take long for the country's leading theme park operators to embrace new policies related to COVID-19. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed on Thursday afternoon that folks completing the COVID-19 vaccination process can enjoy indoor and outdoor activities without a mask or social distancing.
By Friday, Disney (DIS 4.68%), SeaWorld Entertainment (SEAS -3.90%), and Universal Studios parent Comcast (CMCSA 1.13%) were easing up on their safety guidelines for their flagship parks in Central Florida. The changes kicked in when the parks opened for business on Saturday morning, likely opening up the floodgates for cash-flinging tourists ahead of the Memorial Day holiday weekend later this month and the more critical summer travel season that follows.
Rolling with the changes
Disney World and Universal Orlando no longer require masks for vaccinated guests in most outdoor common areas. They're not requiring proof of completed vaccinations, so it's fair to say that many of the maskless guests at Epcot and Universal Studios Florida over the weekend have not gone through the inoculation process.
Both resorts are requiring face coverings for all indoor locations unless actively eating or drinking while stationary and maintaining social distancing. They are also requiring masks to be worn on all rides and attractions, including queues even if they're outdoors.
SeaWorld Entertainment's parks in Central Florida -- SeaWorld Orlando as well as Busch Gardens Tampa and all related water parks -- are making even bolder revisions. They are following the lead of several smaller regional amusement park operators across the country that no longer require face coverings no matter where you happen to be within the gated attractions.
The changes will be a hot topic for debate among theme park fans, and it goes without saying that guests are more than welcome to continue wearing face coverings if they aren't comfortable with the updates. The biggest takeaway for investors is that we should start to see revenue and attendance levels start to climb.
Theme park operators already had the green light to increase guest capacities, but easing up on social distancing and mask guidelines will drive top- and bottom-line results higher. Masks are uncomfortable for most people to wear for long chunks of time, and park visits have been shorter since reopening, as guests have been leaving for lunch, dinner, or rest breaks. It's now easier to extend a stay.
Concession stands should also see a spike in business. The mandate at most of the major theme parks until this past weekend was for guests to keep masks on while they were moving around -- even in outdoor common areas. No one's buying a churro, soda, or ice cream bar just to stand off to the side to consume their purchases. The new rules make it easier to justify grabbing high-margin snacks throughout the day.
The new rules should also help encourage non-locals to come out, an important market for theme park operators since they tend to spend more than locals on merchandise, food, and -- of course -- lodging. It's now easier to spend four figures on a Disney vacation without wondering if anyone is going to be overcome by the safety guidelines.
Disney, Comcast, and SeaWorld Entertainment stocks have all hit new all-time highs since March. Investors appear to be pricing in a recovery in travel and tourism stocks, but that doesn't mean the shares can't move even higher. Record crowds won't return overnight, but the country's national theme park and regional amusement park operators have a lot going for them in the reopening of the country. There is pent-up demand to return to outdoor social settings. A lot of people also saved money during the pandemic's downtime. The savviest operators also got smarter about improving their experiences during the extended closures last year. It's a good time to go out and have fun again.