"There's a great, big, beautiful tomorrow shining at the end of every day," goes the earworm of a throwback chorus that plays at Walt Disney's (DIS 1.15%) Carousel of Progress. The iconic moving theater attraction rotates patrons around staged scenes of home innovations over the past century. It ends with an upbeat outlook for what the future may have in store.
Disney is definitely in motion these days, but it's not necessarily going in circles like its Carousel of Progress experience. It's adding new rides at a time when demand is booming. Disney's also ruffling some feathers with its revenue-enhancing moves, but every story about progress needs tension and obstacles to overcome.
Will the transformation pay off? Morgan Stanley analyst Benjamin Swinburne put out an encouraging analyst note this week, boosting his projections for Disney's theme parks business. He sees a great, big, beautiful tomorrow for Disney. Investors hope he's right, because yesterday's been pretty rough lately.
Now is the time
Swinburne has a bullish overweight rating on Disney stock. His $170 price target implies 28% of upside from current levels. The problem is that Swinburne's rosy near-term forecast wouldn't take the shares to where they were a year ago as they were approaching $190. Disney stock has plummeted 30% over the past year, and it's an odd look for a company that checks off all of the boxes of being the ideal post-pandemic reopening play.
You can't really blame Disney's theme parks business for the languishing shares. Disney's domestic gated attractions posted record revenue and operating profits in its latest quarter. Disney's theme parks are thriving despite global travel hiccups and a COVID-19 crisis that's still hanging around like a horror flick baddie with no intentions of going down without another sequel.
Swinburne feels that Disney is entering a multi-year period of robust growth at its theme parks, and that should provide downside protection in the currently depressed shares. Disney World is about to open its biggest new ride since the pandemic initially shuttered its operations 25 months ago, with at least one other major roller coaster debuting before an 18-month celebration of the resort turning 50 winds down in March of next year. Old experiences are in the process of coming back and new experiences are in the works, but Swinburne is particularly impressed by new tech and operational tools that will build on the segment's record revenue and operating income.
Disney has new toys it can play with to make sure that revenue is optimized on any given day. Requiring park reservations makes sure that its most lucrative per-capita visitors -- overnight resorts guests and visitors on single-day tickets -- are prioritized during peak travel periods. It suspended new sales of all but its cheapest but also least flexible annual passes. Disney also now charges for access to expedited ride queues. All three of those moves are contentious sticking points with theme park enthusiasts, but it's a lucrative symbiotic cocktail for the House of Mouse. Folks willing to spend on stays at premium Disney resort hotels and pay up to save time breezing through Lightning Lane queues are a tank of helium for the bottom line. Everyone else creates demand for the premium perks.
Swinburne sees the new moves driving structurally higher growth and boosting margins. He sees adjusted earnings growing at a 30% annualized compounded clip through the next three fiscal years for the bellwether leisure stock. He's not wrong, as long as everyone is willing to play the part. It all could come tumbling down like a house of Alice in Wonderland playing cards if the economy saps the spending budgets of the premium customers or patience runs out for the non-premium visitors. If either side folds Disney will have to reshuffle.