Summer Fumbles the Kickoff for Central Florida Theme Parks

Area schools are letting out, so it’s not just the temperatures that are starting to heat up in Central Florida. Disney (NYSE: DIS), Universal Orlando parent Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA), and SeaWorld Entertainment (NYSE: SEAS) are starting to widen their operating schedules in anticipation of a healthy flow of tourists during the peak summer season.

Momentum is on the industry’s side after a blowout performance through the first three months of this calendar year. SeaWorld and the theme park divisions of Disney and Comcast came through with double-digit percentage growth in their latest quarterly reports. The timing of the Easter holiday helped — something that will be a headwind in the current quarter — but the generally buoyant economy and reasonable gas prices bode well for Central Florida’s attractions as families descend into the theme park hotbed in the coming weeks. The problem here is that Disney World, Universal Orlando, and SeaWorld Orlando may not be ready for their close-ups.

Image source: Disney.

Not cool for the summer

One of this summer’s new rides seems unlikely to open anytime soon, and developments this week suggest that the other parks also may be stumbling out of the gate this season.

  • SeaWorld Orlando’s Infinity Falls — originally set to open this summer — looks like it’s several weeks, if not a couple of months, away from opening. It would be a big surprise if the river-rafting attraction is drenching its first riders before the peak summer travel season ends in mid-August. It’s ultimately not a good look for a park that just closed down most of its kiddie rides to begin its Sesame Street makeover that won’t be ready until next year.
  • Toy Story Land at Disney’s Hollywood Studios still is on track for its June 30 official opening, but hopes for an extended soft opening later this month appear to be all but dashed. Disney World sent an email to passholders on Thursday night pitching exclusive access to the Pixar-themed expansion in September. Last year, Disney provided select passholders with two weeks of previews for Pandora — The World of Avatar ahead of its Memorial Day weekend opening in 2017. Pushing passholder previews to September implies that there isn’t a lot of wiggle room as it finishes up the landscaping and pathway touches this month.
  • Comcast’s Universal Orlando had no problem opening its main 2018 attraction in time for the start of the summer travel season, but Fast & Furious: Supercharged has generated largely negative reviews. The marketing team’s hopes are now pinned on a nighttime water show that has yet to be officially announced but should be running soon. Universal Orlando’s site inadvertently posted a description of Universal’s Cinematic Celebration — Epic Cinema Under The Stars — earlier this week, promising shooting fountains and music as movie scenes from the park’s properties are projected on massive water walls. That the post was pulled almost as quickly as it went up implies that the park isn’t ready to start promoting the nightly show.

These developments aren’t necessarily fatal. Most families with plans to take summer road trips to Central Florida in the coming weeks will probably stick to their itineraries. However, expectations for investors in the current quarter should be pared back. If the new rides and attractions can prop up attendance, we won’t see that until the next quarter.

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Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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