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The Ride of Your Life

Yes, it's true, fears of $3 gallons of gas have probably cut short your plans to drive cross-country to gawk at the world's biggest ball of yarn. The travel industry knows it, too. With rising transportation costs and discretionary dollars on hold, some amazing cruise and overseas vacation packages are starting to materialize.

Communicating these deals to the end user in a hurry is giving some dot-com vindication to suddenly cash-flow-positive online sites like Travelocity(Nasdaq: TVLY) and Expedia(Nasdaq: EXPE). Both companies have been growing as site traffic improves along with the ability to convert the looker into a booker. Shares of Travelocity have tripled since being featured in our Industry Focus 2001back in December. With 27 million registered users and $833.6 million worth of bookings in the first quarter alone, Travelocity now expects to earn between $0.17 and $0.21 a share before charges for the year.

However, since major itineraries are drawn up an average of six months previous to actual travel dates, tempting offers might fall on deaf ears for travelers who have already decided to stay close to home this season. So while theme park giant Disney(NYSE: DIS) is bracing for the worst -- and so should its investors -- smaller park operators are gearing up for what should be a record season of local traffic.

Six Flags(NYSE: PKS) is the leader in regional amusement parks with 39 locations worldwide. The company has grown by acquiring smaller parks, upgrading the attractions, and rebranding them under the Six Flags banner. The results have been impressive, with consistent double-digit attendance gains in the year following the makeovers. Revenues were 14% higher in the seasonally slow first quarter.

Next in line is Cedar Fair(NYSE: FUN), which has taken a more conservative stance with its acquisitions and has let the parks it has purchased retain their own unique personality. Each chain's balance sheet matches its corporate philosophy. Six Flags is highly leveraged and reports cash flow profits in lieu of bottom-line results. Cedar Fair, on the other hand, keeps debt levels in check and has been consistently profitable. So while Six Flags lost $75.2 million last year, Cedar Fair reported profits of $77.7 million. This was despite the fact that Six Flags topped the billion-dollar mark in revenues last year -- twice Cedar Fair's 2000 tally.

Despite their differing mindsets, both are ready for the steady summer sounds of turnstile clicks. As regional parks, they derive about 90% of their parkgoer audience from residents living within a 150-mile radius of a park.

While admission and concession prices regularly creep up 3%-5% a year and the drive to the parks isn't going to get any cheaper this season, the regional amusement parks offer entertainment at reasonable prices compared to more distant destinations. But the queue of believers is already building. Through last Thursday, Six Flags and Cedar Fair have seen their stocks rise 35% and 24%, respectively, this year.

In short, it's a sector worth riding, even if you have to wait for the front seat. 

Rick has big plans for the summer season. Real big! He owns shares of Disney. Rick's stock holdings can be viewed online, as can the Fool's disclosure policy.

Summer Stocks represents the opinion of one Fool and should in no way be taken as the opinion of either The Motley Fool, Inc. or the company in question, or as representative of anyone or anything other than that specific Fool's thoughts.


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