Sometimes it's all about timing in the theme park industry. Just as Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS) and Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) are gearing up to bring back the after-hours Halloween events that they suspended last year amid pandemic concerns there's a new rival jumping into the tank.
SeaWorld Entertainment (NYSE:SEAS) announced late last week that it will be introducing the Howl-O-Scream event that it's been hosting at its Busch Gardens theme parks for years at SeaWorld Orlando. For 27 select nights between mid-September through the end of October the marine life park will transform itself into a lively party scene with outdoor scare zones, walk-through haunted houses, Halloween-themed shows, and even some interactive surprises on the ride itself. It is SeaWorld's smartest move in years, and -- again -- timing is everything.
From the depths
Disney is checking down from the Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party that it had to cancel last year. It's introducing Disney After Hours Boo Bash, a scaled-back family-friendly event that will run for three hours after parks close on select nights from August through Halloween. The House of Mouse isn't going cheap on the cover charge. It's charging between $129 to $199 a night for adult tickets to the event, a big increase from what it charged for the longer Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party fete.
SeaWorld Orlando is going for the jugular here, charging as little as $29.99 a night for the longer event. Ticket prices max out at $50.99 the last two Saturdays in October. The perfect contrast here is that on Halloween itself SeaWorld Orlando's Howl-O-Scream will cost $34.99 for a five-hour event with Disney World's Boo Bash priced at $199 for three hours of whimsy.
SeaWorld and Disney are gunning for entirely different markets here. Disney World will be drawing young families to trick-or-treat stations with generous candy handouts and exclusive character experiences. SeaWorld Orlando just wants you to scream to the point that your hoarse throat craves a pricey specialty drink. The one player that really has to be worried here is Comcast's Universal Orlando. SeaWorld Orlando can't match the experience and sheer breadth of the haunted mazes that Universal's Halloween Horror Nights will offer, but it's got the price points that will pull more than a few locals away.
Comcast has yet to announce pricing, but it's fair to say that it will be markedly higher -- especially if paired up with passes that provide expedited access to the event's very busy haunted houses. Timing is everything, and on that front it's interesting that SeaWorld Orlando is the only one selling tickets right now.
SeaWorld Orlando needed this. The stock has been hitting new highs despite the chain's financial performance falling well short of where it was when sales peaked in 2013. SeaWorld has been a revolving door of CEOs, falling short on the ride openings it promised pass holders in 2020, and straddling the thinning gray area between pleasing hardcore fans of marine life attractions and appeasing animal rights protestors. I couldn't hold back from even having a little fun at Howl-O-Scream's expense over the weekend.
Here are some rejected SeaWorld Orlando Howl-O-Scream scare zone ideas:— Rick Munarriz (@Market) June 5, 2021
- House of 1000 PETA Protestors
- Ice Breaker: Opening 2020
- Shamu's Revenge
- The Silence of the Penguins Ride
- 1 Fish, 2 Fish, Red Fish, Blackfish
Your turn. $SEAS #howloscreamorlando
Kidding aside -- and wishing I had gone with House of 1,000 CEOs -- this is a great move by SeaWorld Orlando. It has been hosting a daytime Halloween event to draw young families to its parks for years on the weekends leading up to the holiday, but this is a game changer. It will instantly deliver incremental revenue, and per-capita in-park spending for these nighttime events is going to rival what it makes during the day.
I didn't think SeaWorld stock was earning its recent all-time highs, but this is the kind of move that raises the bar -- at a time when the lap bars on its unopened coasters are in no rush to do so. There are better travel and tourism stocks out there, but if SeaWorld keeps making smart moves it may wind up being one of the smarter plays on the reopening of the economy. Once again, it's all about timing.