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Theme Parks Will Save the Day for Disney

By Rick Munarriz – Nov 12, 2021 at 10:05AM

Key Points

  • Disney's theme parks business nearly tripled in revenue for its latest quarter.
  • New initiatives that should expand profits and widen margins have kicked in during the current quarter.
  • It's time for Disney's theme parks to take the growth baton back from Disney+.

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The media giant stumbles after its latest quarterly results, but don't sleep on the turnaround taking place at the happiest place on Earth.

Investors weren't impressed by Walt Disney's (DIS -2.21%) latest quarter, sending the shares 7% lower on Thursday. A miss on both ends of the income statement wasn't pretty. Weak Disney+ net additions was the dagger.

If you're looking for a silver lining to this sad report you may want to turn to the happiest places on Earth. Disney's theme parks were a bright spot in Disney's fiscal fourth quarter. Things are about to get even better.

Mickey and Minnie celebrating in front of the Magic Kingdom castle.

Image source: Walt Disney.

You must be this tall to ride

Disney's segment that includes its theme parks business posted a 99% increase in revenue for the three months ending Oct. 2, but there's some fat we need to carve out from that line item. Consumer products -- accounting for nearly a quarter of Disney's parks, experiences, and products segment and posting a year-over-year decline -- sandbagged the rest of division. Cull out consumer products from the segment and revenue nearly tripled.

Obviously this isn't exactly an apples to apples -- or Mickey Mouse ice cream bars to Mickey Mouse ice cream bars -- comparison. Disneyland was closed for all of last year's fiscal fourth quarter. Disney World and Disneyland Paris didn't open until mid-July last year, so they weren't operating for all three months of last year's summertime quarter. The parks were also running with a tighter leash on guest counts and relying more on locals than the more lucrative tourists. 

Disney's theme parks had to rewrite their playbooks in the wake of the pandemic, but they're emerging stronger than they've ever been. You won't see that in the fourth quarter that just ended. Disney's domestic theme parks generated an operating profit $244 million on $3.473 billion in revenue for the quarter, and that's commendable but far from peak Disney. It's the near future that should excite investors. 

A lot is happening right now at Disney's theme parks. International travel restrictions were finally relaxed on Monday, making it possible for a lot of overseas visitors to enjoy a Disney World or Disneyland vacation for the first time in nearly 19 months. The rollout of Genie+ and Lightning Lane+ -- at Disney World last month and coming soon to Disneyland -- will increase the revenue that premium guests can generate in exchange for a better experience. 

Right now it may be hard to see how important these high-margin initiatives are for a business that has historically been the low-margin component of Disney's media empire. Adding to the foggy mystique is that diehard fans hate a lot of the moves that will be propping up Disney's theme parks profits in the coming years. They may not all come around, but that's also the point.

I've spent this past week at Disney World. Early November is typically slow season for the theme parks business with most schools in session. It was Veterans' Day on Thursday, sure -- but I was surprised at how many other visitors apparently decided to join me at the Florida resort this week. How substantial were the crowds? I took an omnibus ride through the Magic Kingdom's Main Street U.S.A. -- on a late Tuesday morning and the poor driver had to be patient with so much human congestion.

I didn't mind the crowds as a shareholder of the entertainment stock bellwether, of course. As disappointing as it was to see Disney as a whole fall short of expectations earlier this week, Wall Street pros will likely underestimate the recovery at Disney's theme parks for the current quarter and beyond. Once Disney is done with "strategically managing attendance" we'll see the true margin-enhancing power of its new initiatives. It's going to be an enjoyable ride.   

Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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