Halloween is eight weeks away, but don't tell Universal Studios theme park operator Comcast (CMCSA -0.17%) that it's too early to go creepy for cash. Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Florida kicks off in Orlando on Friday night. It marks the return of the popular premium-priced after-hours event after it was canceled last year over COVID-19 concerns.
Naturally, things aren't exactly back to a pre-pandemic state in Florida. The delta variant has caused a surge in COVID cases with hospitalization rates and deaths at or near all-time highs. But after Comcast surprised investors with a return to profitability for its theme park segment in its latest quarter, it wasn't going to back down from a huge seasonal moneymaker. With locals clamoring for stuff to do (and now a new rival getting in on the scare maze), it's all treats and hopefully no tricks for Comcast's Universal Orlando resort.
Jack of all trades
Last year was supposed to be special. The annual scare fest was turning 30, and the plan was to bring back some of the villainous icons of previous years to anchor a murderers row of proprietary characters. A global pandemic had other plans, even though Universal Studios Florida wound up opening a couple of the intended scare mazes through its cavernous soundstages during the park's regular operating hours for day guests.
It won't be ideal. Guests will be required to don protective face coverings in the indoor scare mazes. Clear vinyl sheets will separate the scare actors from the patrons, making it less "in your face" than in previous years. They're concessions that have to be made for the safety of Universal team members and guests alike. It's way better than nothing.
Halloween has become a pretty big business in Central Florida, and until this year the battle lines were pretty clear. Comcast would offer up the frights with its hard-ticket event that features 10 or so themed walk-through haunted houses. Walt Disney (DIS -3.22%) would check in with family-friendly fare with a costume party at the Magic Kingdom complete with candy stations and Halloween-inspired character meet-and-greet opportunities.
This year, SeaWorld Entertainment (SEAS 0.37%) is entering the mix with its Howl-O-Scream event that kicks off next weekend at SeaWorld Orlando. The marine-life theme park is geographically positioned between its two rivals, but when it comes to the vibe it's going for, it's clearly a lot closer to Comcast than Disney here.
Howl-O-Scream at SeaWorld Orlando is starting small with just four haunted houses, but it's pricing its product aggressively. Ticket prices are running for just a little more than half of comparable Halloween Horror Nights admissions.
Do Comcast investors have to fear that an aggressive new competitor is trying to siphon off some of its more budget-conscious customers? It doesn't seem to be a problem right now. Friday's opening night sold out a few days ago. Disney After Hours Boo Bash has sold out its entire run despite costing a lot more than its 2019 Halloween event.
There is clearly an appetite for entertainment in social settings in the Central Florida theme park scene and the means to pay up for the escapism. This all bodes well for travel and tourism stocks despite the very real dangers of a prolonged pandemic. Some tricks wind up being treats in the end.