Stocks in general were rocked in Friday's holiday-abridged trading session. News of the new omicron variant was the one Thanksgiving leftover that no one wanted, and naturally some of the hardest-hit stocks were the companies that were starting to recover from the pandemic's severe effects.
All of the national theme park chains and regional amusement park operators declined on Friday. Walt Disney (DIS -2.10%), Cedar Fair (FUN 0.60%), and Universal Studios parent Comcast (CMCSA -0.28%) slipped just 2% for the shortened trading session, holding up better than the market overall. However, the same can't be said about SeaWorld Entertainment (SEAS -0.28%) and Six Flags Entertainment (SIX 0.32%), which plummeted 7% and 4%, respectively.
Are the operators of popular gated attractions about to hit trouble at the turnstiles? Why did some stocks hold up better than others? Let's break it all down.
This ride has its ups and downs
The pandemic has been brutal, and it's not over. Dr. Anthony Fauci was warning on Sunday that the country could be facing a fifth wave of surging cases on the heels of the new omicron variant of the original COVID-19 virus. With many of the early "pandemic plays" moving higher on Friday, it's only natural the investors would turn away from the "reopening plays," including park operators.
The disparity in the market reactions is somewhat easy to explain. Disney and Comcast run the world's most popular theme parks, but they are also well-diversified media empires. Disney's unmatched content has turned Disney+ into a juggernaut, with 116 million subscribers worldwide in its first two years of operation. Comcast is the country's top dog as a cable company and internet service provider. If folks are going to have to hunker at home again, the theme parks will understandably take a hit, but that will be offset by more captive audiences at home for the larger businesses that Disney and Comcast own.
Regional amusement park operators Cedar Fair and Six Flags are in the middle of the pack among Friday's sell-off stocks. The potentially highly contagious omicron variant is problematic to a thrill park environment where crowds gather, but many of their properties are seasonal. They do have some year-round properties, but peak season for Six Flags and Cedar Fair is the summertime, when the weather is warm and schools are out. If the omicron wave is under control by the time spring break rolls around in four months, the only thing that Six Flags and Cedar Fair may suffer is a drop in 2022 annual pass purchases as holiday gifts in the coming weeks given the negative sentiment of a potential fifth wave.
Sea World Entertainment was the hardest-hit operator, and that checks out. Sea World is a tweener. It relies on locals more than Disney and Comcast's Universal Studios to fill its parks, and that's a good thing with international travel restrictions likely to return if omicron proves to be a fierce variant to vanquish. However, it's not really a regional amusement park operator like most of the Six Flags and Cedar Fair attractions that rely primarily on those living within reasonable driving distance. In Central Florida -- where roughly half of the SeaWorld theme parks and water parks exist -- British and Brazilian tourists are a big part of the turnstile clicks.
As a pure play on theme parks, SeaWorld Entertainment would feel the full impact of a slowdown in travel without the media assets that will help Disney and Comcast. It doesn't mean that the sell-off is warranted. Just as the regional amusement park operators are betting big on the springtime of 2022, SeaWorld Entertainment has been saving thrill rides that it was supposed to open last year until early next year. The new thrill rides were mostly complete in 2020, but the park operator held off initially because it was limiting crowd levels and more recently because it didn't need the new rides to draw strong attendance numbers.
All five operators will be fine. Investors may not see it that way, and selling off leisure stocks is an obvious knee-jerk reaction to the unwelcome pandemic news. However, Disney, Comcast, Six Flags, Cedar Fair, and SeaWorld have learned to play within all of the challenging constraints that they have faced since starting to reopen as early as June of last year. They have safeguards in place to continue operating if pandemic conditions warrant a more cautious stance, and they also have local patrons that have come to appreciate the gated attractions as breaks of escapism in the new normal.
Buckle up -- the ride's not over yet.