With new case counts from the omicron variant falling fast in Florida, Walt Disney (DIS -0.15%) is relaxing its COVID-19 rules requiring masks at its massive resort in the Sunshine State. Starting on Thursday, vaccinated Disney World guests will no longer be required to wear masks while indoors. The company is encouraging those who have not received their COVID-19 shots to continue wearing face coverings indoors ... but you can probably figure out how that will play out. All guests will still be required to mask up on enclosed Disney transportation offerings, including its monorails and buses.
Disney is actually the last of the major theme park operators to relax its mask requirements in this way, but that's not a surprise. As the industry's top name, it's going to play it a bit safer than its peers. Comcast (CMCSA 0.41%) relaxed its rules at Universal Orlando earlier this week.
As the turnstiles click
Every shift in pandemic policy matters, but the timing of this one is worth exploring. Disney, Comcast, and their smaller rivals had eased up their requirements for face coverings last year as new daily case counts declined and vaccination penetration rates improved, but they tightened up their rules again heading into the holidays as new COVID-19 cases skyrocketed.
It was a rough time for the year-round operators, but the guests kept coming. Disney and Comcast posted record results for their Florida theme parks in the fourth quarter. The next big seasonal push for the industry will begin next month when schools start to take their spring breaks. Then, it will be on the telltale summer season.
One could argue that there is no longer a slow season at Disney World. The boom in hybrid work, the growth of online education programs, and the shift to remote workforces have all combined to make it easier for families to spend time at a Disney park outside of school breaks. Throw in the fact that Disney World is well into its 18-month-long celebration of the park turning 50, and it's easy to see why folks are still visiting in droves even as the company boosts prices on tickets, food, and lodging.
Neither the tightening nor the loosening of its mask requirements have cut into guest counts, but it's easy to understand why some folks may have been waiting for face-covering rules to ease up before heading to the park. The science is clear: Masks and vaccinations play important roles in reducing the spread of COVID-19, and the vaccines significantly reduce the dangers for those who become infected. But there's also a sizable chunk of the country's population that doesn't want to don masks while riding roller coasters. Disney needs to be magnetic to all camps if it's going to maximize its earnings.
Enjoying the ride
Nearly two years into this pandemic, we know that the only constant is change. If new case counts start to surge again, Disney and Comcast will naturally bring back their masking rules or even introduce new measures.
For now, though, momentum is on the side of the theme park industry. All three of the publicly traded players that have reported financial results so far this earnings season have delivered blowout numbers. Business looks likely to be strong in 2022, and we've now seen that park operators can thrive under all sorts of pandemic conditions.
Not every niche in the travel and tourism industry is doing so well right now, but theme parks and regional amusement park operators are already back to performing at their pre-pandemic levels. In the current climate, with new case counts plunging again, it makes sense for the companies to relax their masking rules. But don't bet against these purveyors of escapism even if shifting COVID-19 conditions require them to reimpose stricter safety protocols later this year.