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4 Reasons Theme Parks Are Struggling This Summer

Rick Munarriz, The Motley Fool

We're waist deep into the telltale summer travel season, and Central Florida's theme parks aren't faring as well as you probably think. Disney (NYSE: DIS) has been drumming up headlines over the sluggish attendance at Disneyland in California, but things aren't going much better on the East Coast. Social media is blowing up this week with shots of near-empty pathways at Disney World's Epcot, the fourth busiest theme park in the country last year. 

Disney isn't the only one smarting in Florida. SeaWorld Entertainment (NYSE: SEAS) and Universal Studios parent Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA) are also feeling the pinch, and we know that's because they've been rolling out some pretty desperate promotions this week. SeaWorld Orlando just dusted off its old Fun Card for Florida residents, giving folks access to its marine life-themed attraction through the end of the year, with some block dates for less than the price of a single-day ticket.

Comcast's latest move isn't as cutthroat as SeaWorld's Fun Card, but last weekend it did lift the rest of the summer's blockout dates for its Volcano Bay waterpark for its two mid-tier passes. This is a pretty big deal, since its high-end two-park pass holders pay 60% more than its mid-tier two-park pass holders to add Volcano Bay, when the only difference as it relates to Volcano Bay outside of a slightly larger in-park spending discount is the summer block-out period. Comcast is willing to blow up the value proposition of its high-end pass just for the sake of getting more folks to splash around at its two-year old waterpark. 

Things aren't going so hot despite a reportedly healthy economy. Let's go over the reasons the industry isn't hitting it out during the peak summer travel season in the theme park hotbed of Central Florida. 

Snow White's seven dwarfs lined up just outside their family coaster attraction.

Image source: Disney.

1. Hot, hot, hot

Florida hails itself as the Sunshine State, and it's certainly earning that moniker this summer. The heatwave is driving temperatures to near-record levels this summer, and that could be driving visitors away. 

Folks who planned Disney and Universal trips months ago aren't going to cancel their family-friendly getaways, but they're probably ducking out earlier in the day, and that trips up high-margin meals at the parks that typically thrive on their captive audiences. 

2. Price increases may have finally hit a breaking point

Disney World annual pass prices have risen by as much as 28% over the past year. Single-day admissions were jacked up as much as 23% in March. Comcast and SeaWorld haven't been as aggressive with their pricing as Disney this year, but they haven't been shy to play along in the past.

A visit to Central Florida's hottest theme parks isn't cheap, and that could explain why Comcast, SeaWorld, and even Disney have gotten pretty ambitious with their promotions this summer to offer guests discounted visits. The market may have finally pushed the limits of its elasticity, but the silver lining is that average revenue per visitor is probably improving to offset at least some of the traffic slowdown.

3. Shutting locals out comes at a price

Disney World, Universal Orlando, and more recently SeaWorld Orlando have expanded their pass tiers to include more levels where regulars can't visit during peak travel periods. The strategy was done to give guests paying a premium for holiday visits more pleasant park experiences, but widening block-out dates are shooing away cost-conscious locals who have opted for lower-priced plans. 

The return of the Fun Card at Seaworld Orlando and the lifting of water park block-out dates for more of its pass levels at Universal Orlando are proof that the chains are courting the locals this summer, but they're not alone. Even Disney World is selling discounted multiday tickets to Florida residents.

4. New rides aren't winning over guests

Disney World hasn't opened a major new ride this year. The 14-acre Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge won't open until late next month, weeks after many Florida families are back at school. SeaWorld Orlando only transformed its Shamu-themed kid-friendly area into a Sesame Street attraction.

Comcast did try to raise the bar with last month's debut of Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, but it's been a downtime disaster. It wasn't until my fifth visit to Universal's Islands of Adventure this summer, earlier this week, that I was finally able to experience the attraction when it was functioning properly. It will be a solid addition to the resort if it's ever running consistently, but for now all of the billboards advertising an attraction that doesn't open when the park does, closes its line several hours before the park's closing time, and experiences weather and mechanical outages through its limited operating schedule seems a bit like a bait and switch.

It also doesn't help that only one of the two new Star Wars-themed rides will be opening next month, and it's received mixed reviews after opening at Disneyland in May. The more ambitious Rise of the Resistance attraction won't open until early December at Disney World.

This year could've played out differently if new rides that are both exciting and reliable had been available all summer. 

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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 the following options: long January 2021 $60 calls on Walt Disney and short October 2019 $125 calls on Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends Comcast. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.