Wed. Sep 28th, 2022

Disney shares are up 5% following Wednesday’s third-quarter earnings report that surpassed expectations, largely due to higher spending at the company’s domestic theme parks.

But might Disney’s success also say something about the current state of the U.S. economy? Experts often view Disney’s theme parks as bellwether economic indicators, as the Financial Times explained several years ago. Essentially, the theory goes that when budgets tighten, families cancel trips to Disney theme parks. That does not appear to be happening right now.

What a difference a year makes. This time last summer, most of Disney’s theme parks were running at reduced capacity due to the pandemic and Disney Cruise Line was not operating at all.

Flash forward to Wednesday’s earnings call, where company executives announced that revenue for Disney’s parks, experiences and products division rose by more than $3 billion and operating income increased by $1.8 billion compared to the same period in 2021. The increase was driven by jumps in theme park attendance, occupied room nights at Disney’s on-site hotels and cruise bookings.

“Demand at our domestic parks continues to exceed expectations with attendance on many days tracking ahead of 2019 levels.”

—Christine McCarthy, Disney CFO

“All of our theme parks are now open,” said Disney CEO Bob Chapek on the earnings call, noting that the company has ramped up capacity on a phased basis and brought back many of the experiences that families love, such as character meet-and-greets, fireworks spectaculars and theatrical performances.

“Demand at our domestic parks continues to exceed expectations with attendance on many days tracking ahead of 2019 levels,” said Christine McCarthy, Disney’s chief financial officer. “We have not yet seen demand abate at all and we still have many days when people cannot get reservations.”

Chapek noted that the quarter included three major milestones for the parks and experiences business. The first was the launch of the immersive Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind roller coaster at Epcot in Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando.

The second was the expansion of the Disney Cruise Line fleet with the brand new Disney Wish ship, which is powered by liquefied natural gas. The cruise business “has been the most severely impacted by Covid in terms of duration of disruption to the business,” noted McCarthy. “But we have a competitive position overall in the cruise business, especially the family cruise market, so we generate pricing that’s well above the industry average.

The third big milestone was the opening of the Marvel-themed Avengers Campus at Disneyland Paris. “Guests are responding in a big way to our enhanced offering at Disneyland Paris’ per capita spending in Q3 was up over 30% versus 2019, a great sign of the site’s potential for growth,” said Chapek.

The strong performance in the third quarter of Disney’s resort in France was partially offset by closure-related impacts at its Shanghai resort, where the theme park was closed for all but the last three days of the quarter.

Though the average daily attendance at domestic Disney parks was down slightly compared to 2019, per capita spending is up 10% compared to last year and is 40% higher than fiscal 2019.

Higher per-person spending was driven in part by the Genie+ and Lightning Lane features introduced last year to replace the old FastPass system. With the new system, parkgoers can pay extra to bypass lines for the most popular attractions. “Now about 50% of the people that come through the gate actually buy up to that Genie product, which I think you can see the result of in our yields,” said Chapek.

McCarthy acknowledged that international visitors, which historically have accounted for up to 20% of total guests, have been slow to return to the U.S. parks. “During the pandemic, international visitation to our domestic park — primarily Walt Disney World — was basically nonexistent,” she said. “But it’s made significant progress, and we expect the international visitation, when it is fully back, to actually be additive to margins because those guests tend to stay longer at the parks, and they spend more money when they’re there as well.”

Disney’s rebound is about more than pent-up demand following the darkest days of the pandemic, said Chapek. “What we’re seeing is far more resilient, far more long lasting in terms of increase in the affinity for our parks, both from the willingness to come to our parks and its attendance, but also in terms of what guests are willing to spend when they get there in order to personalize their experience.”

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