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Disney World Hopes to Food & Wine a Turnaround

By Rick Munarriz – Sep 24, 2016 at 9:09AM

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There will be a lot of wining, dining, and some un-Disney-like debauchery going on at Disney World these next few weeks.

Image source: Disney.

It's that time of year when adults behave like children at Central Florida's theme parks. Comcast's (CMCSA 0.34%) Universal Orlando kicked off Halloween Horror Nights last weekend where grown-ups scream, run, and clutch hands as they work their way through elaborate haunted houses and scare zones.

Disney's (DIS -0.01%) Epcot kicked off its annual Food & Wine Festival last week, too. It is there, during the two-month event, where adults eat and drink to the point where they scream, stumble, and clutch hands if they spend more time on the latter than the former at the Epcot Food & Wine Festival.

Leave it to Comcast and Disney to turn making adults feel like children again into a lucrative business -- taking entirely different paths to get there -- during the seasonally sleepy fall season.

Rich man, pour man

Disney's Epcot has been a bastion for foodies and oenophiles, rare in the theme park industry, long before the festival tradition began humbly in 1995. It now turns 21, the legal drinking age in Florida. There's a lot of money to be made as Disney's World Showcase countries offer up indigenous beer, wine, and tapas-sized food offerings. Pop-up kiosks are also there for countries that don't have a year-round pavilion. Popular, or at least once popular, recording artists are brought in to provide a soundtrack for the revelry. There are also premium-priced workshops and nighttime dinner parties. 

If there's a way to cash in during the event, it's safe to say that Disney is doing it. The theme park giant won't spell out exactly how much money it rakes in during the festival, but the long lines during what was previously a tourism lull are telling. The festival also seems to be getting longer with every passing year. It will stretch 62 days this year. Drink safely, attendees.

A toast to the fallen

Epcot's Food & Wine Festival could be the meal ticket that Disney World needs to turn around its sluggish attendance. Disney World experienced a rare dip in guest counts during the March quarter, and that was followed by a 4% year-over-year slide in attendance for the June quarter. Things likely didn't improve during the quarter that ends next week, once again contrasting the relative success that Comcast's Universal Orlando is experiencing these days. 

This brings us to the holiday quarter, Disney's first fiscal quarter of 2017. It's Disney's best shot at reversing what should be a three-quarter streak of negative attendance growth in Florida. Disney's shift to demand-based pricing makes it cheaper for guests to visit now than during the summer, a dynamic that didn't exist last time the festival rolled around. Owners of new seasonal passes that were blocked out during the peak summer period also now have access to the parks. 

This is also a festival that draws locals. It's an international affair, but the timing of the event -- when Central Florida does a better job of wooing convention business than tourists -- finds Disney relying on locals more than it does during peak holiday periods. It's an important distinction given the summer's Zika virus outbreak in other parts of the state.

Disney denies that Zika is having a negative impact on attendance, but it's still comforting to see a locals-attracting festival since Floridians already deal with the Zika threat in their everyday lives. Disney's commitment to controlling the mosquito population at its theme parks probably positions Disney World as a safer alternative to going out locally. The wine-drinking nature of the event also likely turns away pregnant attendees, the group with the most at stake in a Zika strike. 

There will be a lot of wining, dining, and some un-Disney-like debauchery going on at Disney World these next few weeks. Disney shareholders should be raising a glass to that.

Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Walt Disney. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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