Last year was the biggest economic disaster the theme park industry has ever faced.
Orlando theme parks shut down for months at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, taking a multibillion dollar hit.
But as Comcast CEO Brian Roberts spoke to investors Wednesday, his tone was undeniably optimistic as he answered questions about Universal parks’ future and the ongoing recovery. His enthusiasm comes during a week of particularly good news for Universal parks.
The United States announced its loosening restrictions on international flights this fall.
Meanwhile, visitors flocked to be the first to see Universal Beijing — which is three times larger than Universal’s Hollywood park — during Monday’s grand opening. Tickets reportedly sold out in 30 minutes.
“I feel great about theme parks,” Roberts said during the Goldman Sachs Communacopia Conference. “We’re seeing a great resurgence, and there’s a built-up frustration and desire by customers and consumers to have fun right now. And we want to do it safely.”
In Orlando, Roberts’ message was: “We were back.”
Even without international travelers, Universal theme parks posted profits in its second-quarter earnings for the first time since the pandemic began, the company said in July.
What will keep fueling the parks’ recovery is the return of foreign nationals going on vacation before the holidays. The White House is lifting COVID-19 travel restrictions in early November for fully vaccinated air passengers coming from countries such as China, India, Brazil and most of Europe.
“Of course the announcement where international visitation can resume from Europe is very exciting,” Roberts said. “There is a momentum for sure that this is a business we should continue to want to invest in.”
One of Universal’s biggest investments is a third theme park in Orlando to intensify the competition with Walt Disney World. Epic Universe is under construction and slated to open in the next few years in the shadow of the Orange County Convention Center.
Universal hasn’t released many details on what new rides are opening although Roberts mentioned Wednesday one new Nintendo attraction coming to Orlando that’s identical to a ride built in Japan.
Roberts described the ride after his visit to Japan.
“While I was there, I was able to see the new Nintendo attraction which is the first in the world, by my knowledge, doing what it’s doing using augmented reality with a physical ride,” Roberts said. “We’re bringing that to the United States, both to California and to Florida. So a lot is going on in the parks.”
Meanwhile Disney CEO Bob Chapek, who spoke Tuesday at the same conference, said his theme parks slowed down for a few weeks this summer after concerns over the highly contagious delta variant.
“But then Labor Day happened, and all of a sudden things started to recover quite nicely,” Chapek said.
One “encouraging” sign is visitors made more reservations at Disneyland and Disney World during the company’s fourth quarter, which typically ends early October, compared to the third quarter, Chapek said.
The company has used the pandemic to make significant changes retooling the parks’ annual passholder programs in California and Florida as well as Orlando’s FastPass system which Chapek says will improve the guest experience.
“Given the cards we were dealt and some of the challenges that we faced, we are just really pleased with how we’ve emerged,” Chapek said.