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Busch Entertainment sold to Blackstone Group


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From the Telegraph.co.uk:

 

Thorpe Park owner looks at bid for US attractions

 

By Mark Kleinman

Last Updated: 9:36pm BST 02/08/2008

 

Some of Britain's biggest visitor attractions, including Alton Towers and the London Dungeon, are being lined up for a possible merger with the owner of Florida's Sea World, paving the way for a stock market flotation that could see the combined group head straight into the FTSE100.

 

Blackstone, the American investment firm, which is a major shareholder in Merlin Entertainments Group, is positioning itself for a tilt at the theme parks unit of Anheuser-Busch, the brewing giant which is in the process of being acquired by the Brazilian company InBev.

 

InBev plans to dispose of the theme parks business, which is called Busch Entertainment Corporation and owns nine attractions across the US. Earlier this year, Anheuser struck a deal to open attractions in Dubai. The division is assessed by analysts as being worth between $2.5bn and $4.5bn.

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Blackstone, which co-owns Merlin alongside Dubai International Capital, is also an investor in Universal Orlando, another of the US's largest theme parks operators. People close to Blackstone say that if it succeeds with an offer for the Anheuser-Busch parks, it could merge them with either Merlin or Universal, in which NBC Universal, the US media company, is a partner.

# More on leisure

 

Although the market for initial public offerings is likely to remain subdued for some time, the long-term appetite among institutional and public investors to participate in such a flotation is likely to be significant.

 

Merlin, which also owns Thorpe Park, Legoland and Warwick Castle, already makes sizeable profits, earning more than £200m before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation in its last-reported financial year.

 

The company had already been earmarked for a stock market listing in London when the economic environment improves.

 

Among other operators of attractions, Cirque du Soleil, the touring circus, has also been approached about a potential sale in recent months.

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I was just looking through the Blackstone website, and it's interesting all the companies and deals they've either owned or had a hand in with acquisitions. Besides being part owners of Merlin (Tusauds, Legoland, etc.) and Universal Orlando, they also had a hand in Time Warner's acquisition of Six Flags as well as being involved with Sirius, Michael's Arts & Crafts, RGIS inventory, Neilsen Media Research and a TON of other companies!

 

With Six Flags current financial straights (although they do seem to be improving), who knows...we could see Blackstone step in and build a park conglomerate bigger than Disney.

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And another player is sizing up BEC...

 

From the Times.co.uk:

 

European theme park giant Parques Reunidos angles for US rival

 

 

The owner of Parques Reunidos, one of Europe’s leading theme-park operators, has hired investment bankers to advise on a possible $4.5 billion (£2.3 billion) bid for the American company behind Sea World and Busch Gardens.

 

British private-equity firm Candover, which bought Parques in January 2007, is thought to have hired Morgan Stanley to draw up plans to bid for its American rival, owned by Anheuser-Busch, the maker of Budweiser beer.

 

Anheuser’s attractions division is estimated to be worth between $2.5 billion and $4.5 billion and is expected to be sold by Inbev, the Belgian brewer, after it completes an agreed takeover of the beermaker.

 

Selling the nine theme parks would raise funds to repay some of the debt it will take on to buy Anheuser.

 

Acquiring the business would allow Parques to expand what is already a significant presence in the American market. It owns the biggest chain of water parks in the country as well as a number of family entertainment centres.

 

Parques is unlikely to have a clear run at the Anheuser business – Merlin Entertainment, owner of Legoland, Alton Towers and Madame Tussauds, will also be interested.

 

Interesting...they're the chain that just acquired Kennywood and its associated parks. I don't know if they would really know how to handle a company the size of BEC. If they are successful, this could be another Premier Parks scenario with an owner taking on more than they can handle...

 

Then again, after checking out their website and seeing some of the parks they own, it may be a good fit.

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From Tampa Bay Online:

 

Attracting Attention

 

Theme park industry analysts are buzzing that a small group of suitors may be emerging to make a play for Busch Gardens and its sister theme parks, currently owned by beer giant Anheuser-Busch.

 

Talk of a proposed deal for the company's theme park division comes on the heels of Anheuser-Busch, the maker of Budweiser and Michelob, agreeing to be acquired by Belgian beer giant InBev, maker of Becks and Stella Artois. At the time of the $52 billion takeover, InBev said it would partially finance the deal by selling "non-core assets," which analysts agree includes Busch's theme park unit.

 

That unit, Busch Entertainment Corp., is made up of 10 theme parks, which include its Florida properties, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, Adventure Island and SeaWorld Orlando.

 

According to some foreign news reports, bidding for the unit may be heating up. Last week, The Telegraph, a London-based newspaper, reported that the owner of British theme park giant Merlin Entertainment was preparing a bid for Busch Entertainment. Meanwhile, the Times of London reported that Parques Reunidos, a Spanish theme-park owner, has hired bankers to prepare a bid.

 

Other potential suitors mentioned in foreign news reports include Middle East-based Dubai World, and Walt Disney Attractions has been mentioned in media reports as a possible buyer. Industry analysts, however, peg them as unlikely to make a play for Busch Entertainment.

 

A Disney spokesman declined to comment on media reports, and representatives for InBev, Parques Reunidos and Merlin were unavailable to respond Tuesday to requests for comment.

 

Though it is unclear whether the reports are based on interest from the companies or attempts by InBev to kick off a bidding war for its properties, they seem to confirm what analysts have been saying since the InBev deal was announced: The most likely buyers for the major theme park chain are overseas.

 

They also suggest the Busch Entertainment parks will be sold together rather than individually.

 

Analysts say that tight credit markets have made a major purchase by an American theme park operator such as Six Flags unlikely, but that has created an opportunity for well-capitalized foreign park operators eager to make inroads in the United States market.

 

Busch Entertainment ranks among the top five theme park operators in the United States, with 2007 attendance of 22.3 million, according to the Themed Entertainment Association.

 

Busch Gardens Tampa Bay was its largest draw, with an estimated 14.5 million visitors. Lehman Bros. estimated the value of the Busch Entertainment unit at $2.58 billion before the sale.

 

Merlin, which owns Legoland, the toy-inspired parks in California and Illinois, as well as the London Eye and other British attractions, is best positioned for a large acquisition, said John Gerner, an analyst with Leisure Business Advisors.

 

"In addition to having that financing clout, they have expressed interest in establishing an international presence," Gerner said. Merlin is owned by American private equity group The Blackstone Group.

 

Parques Reunidos, owned by a British private equity firm, is smaller than Merlin, but expressed its intention to compete in the United States with the purchase of the five Kennywood Entertainment parks last year, said Paul Ruben, North America editor for Park World magazine. Kennywood parks are in Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New Hampshire.

 

"They can afford it," Ruben said.

 

Though theme park titan Disney is rumored to be considering a bid for the parks, Gerner said he doesn't see any motivation for Disney to buy the Busch unit. Disney was interested in buying the SeaWorld chain two decades ago but since has moved on to a business model based on developing its own attractions, he said.

 

"Why Disney would come back to the table and buy those parks is questionable," he said. "I'm not aware of them buying other attractions. That's just not something they do. Their parks are heavily branded."

 

Ruben agreed, noting that Disney already has a strong presence in Florida.

 

"If Disney came in, they'd want to Disneyfy the park and make it completely different than it is today. Anything's feasible. But why?" he said.

 

A wild card may be Dubai World, a business conglomerate based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates that is developing The Worlds, an artificial archipelago of resort islands. Dubai World hasn't previously expressed intentions of investing in theme parks outside the Middle East, but is considered by experts to have the capital to do so.

 

But Gerner added that with a sale of this magnitude, industry analysts could be surprised by the winning suitor.

 

"Even though one may not be from a strategic position interested in buying these parks, there are many companies that could be interested in buying them at a good price," he said.

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From the Virginia Gazette:

 

Theme park sale may be imminent

By Rusty Carter | The Virginia Gazette

November 5, 2008

 

JAMES CITY - Pressure is increasing on InBev to find a buyer for Busch Entertain­ment before the $52 billion deal for Anheuser-Busch closes, perhaps in less than eight weeks.

 

Busch stockholders are scheduled to vote on the deal Nov. 12, and they are expected to overwhelmingly approve a buyout at $70 per share. Busch stock was hovering around $63 on Tuesday.

 

The recent financial crisis has made underwriting the huge deal more difficult, and would-be buyers for Busch’s theme parks appear to be holding out for a better bargain.

 

The British financial website This is Money reported Tuesday that InBev has “already started an auction of bits of the American brewer that it doesn’t want.

 

“Cash-strapped InBev has received approaches from opportunist would-be buyers only too aware [of] the short-term funding problems,” the site continued, citing an unnamed source who said huge debt accompanying the deal is prompting InBev to unload assets it doesn’t yet own.

 

Ten theme parks, including Busch Gardens Europe and Water Country USA, are likely the first to go and are expected to reap $2.5 billion-$4 billion. It’s anticipated that Kingsmill and Busch Properties would be bundled with the theme parks because they are interwoven together too deeply to extricate for a separate sale. That may prove a blessing, since the market for a resort, residential community and corporate park is considered very thin these days.

 

Shortly after Busch and InBev reached an agreement on the deal, executives at Busch Properties began to inventory all the assets. An InBev executive in Belgium, however, was noncommittal on the subject Tuesday in responding to Gazette questions sent to Kingsmill general manager Robin Carson.

 

“We are contemplating disposals of certain assets from both companies,” Marianne Amssoms, InBev’s vice president for Global External Communications said in an e-mail. “However, it is too early to comment at this stage on which businesses specifically would be considered. InBev’s decision will be based on a diligent review of the strategic and financial consequences of any divestment, with the goal of creating the best opportunities and value for all constituents.”

 

It is clear, though, that the sale of the theme parks is a priority.

 

This is Money quoted a source, “[inBev] has had interest for the theme park business and the packaging operations, and might announce something before the close of the deal.”

 

Stock analysts say London-based Blackstone Group, which invests in dozens of corporations worldwide, is an attractive suitor. Included in its portfolio is the newly acquired Weather Channel, Harrah’s casinos, the Nielsen ratings company, Hilton Hotels and Columbia House music distribution. In 2005 Blackstone paid $2.5 billion for Merlin Entertainment Group, the largest operator of visitor attractions in Europe and the second largest globally.

 

Among Merlin’s holdings is Alton Towers, in Staffordshire, England, which it touts “as the only short-break resort in the United Kingdom with a world-class theme park, two hotels, waterpark, luxury spa, conference venue, and golf.” That experience would tie in with running the resort and conference business at Kingsmill.

 

Dubai World is another potential buyer, and may have an inside track given Busch’s agreement last year to build four theme parks in the Arab nation.

 

This is Money also reported that InBev is ready to sell off several of its European beer brands to raise cash, and may sell off its can-making business and brewing operations in South Korea.

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Source: St Petersburg Times

 

If Busch Gardens is for sale, who's interested?

By Mark Albright, Times Staff Writer

In print: Thursday, November 20, 2008

 

ORLANDO — Busch Gardens and Sea World may soon change hands, according to buzz at the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions trade show.

 

A4S_coaster112008_46517c.jpeg

Anheuser-Busch’s theme parks, including Busch Gardens, above, likely would cost at least $3-billion.

 

 

Belgian brewing giant InBev LLC recently acquired the parks as part of its $52-billion purchase of Anheuser-Busch Cos.

 

But some experts now figure that InBev will unload the parks as soon as this summer to help pay off a $9.8-billion bridge that greased the Anheuser-Busch deal.

 

One prospective buyer — British Merlin Entertainments Group — kicked off the speculation Wednesday.

 

"Anyone interested in taking a global position in this industry is interested in Busch," said Nick Varney, Merlin chief executive officer. "And that certainly includes us."

 

Renamed Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world's largest brewer has been tight-lipped about the bid process.

 

British Merlin Entertainments Group has already put investment bankers on the case, as has the Spanish Parques Reunidos. Both are active players in the rapidly consolidating U.S. amusement park sector.

 

A management team from within Busch Entertainment Corp. could try to take over by creating a new public company, but poker-faced top Busch executives here were mum to questions about the future.

 

Merlin's Varney made his interest public after a speech in which he noted the industry's consolidation will continue with smaller fish starting to eat the bigger fish with the backing of private equity funds. Both Merlin and Parque Reunidos are smaller than Busch Entertainment but have been on a buying binge of U.S. parks and attractions the past five years.

 

Whether these smaller players can borrow enough to swing a $3-billion to $5-billion deal has fueled the notion the Sea World and Busch Gardens parks could be sold separately. That — and the fact Merlin's private equity backer, the Blackstone Group, already owns half of Universal Orlando — has triggered educated guesses that Walt Disney Co. will step in from the sideline.

 

Another possible suitor apparently is not in the chase.

 

"We're not interested," said Dick Kinzel, chief executive officer of Cedar Fair, the nation's fourth-largest park operator which owns Cedar Point in Ohio and Knott's Berry Farm in California. "The price tag has too many 'B's' in it."

 

Though Florida's big theme parks have enjoyed robust growth for most of the last 37 years, many parks elsewhere are riddled with debt from trying to keep pace in a capital-intense business. Nationally, theme park attendance has been flat for a decade. Per-capita attendance has been shrinking thanks to ever-higher admissions and new forms of entertainment.

 

New ownership could bring about changes at familiar parks. Traditional park owners like Busch have concentrated on return on investment in new attractions. Others, like Disney and Universal, create synergies with other corporate goals of selling films, TV shows and licensed character merchandise. They also want in on the hotel business.

 

Busch used its theme parks as an extension of its beer marketing. But the parks nonetheless stood on their own profitability. They also were a personal obsession of the Busch family, which now only occupies a board seat at the new AB InBev.

 

It's one reason Busch parks stand apart from more traditional regional parks and can compete with the deeper pockets of Disney and Universal. Busch poured tens of millions of dollars to bring Sea World up to Busch standards after buying the park in the 1990s. At Busch Gardens Africa in Tampa the landscaping backstage in employee areas is as manicured as the rest of the park.

 

As the biggest tourist attraction in the Tampa Bay area, Busch Gardens plays a major role in shaping the region's appeal as a tourist destination.

 

"Busch has been the 800 pound gorilla in our back yard," said Paul Catoe, chief executive of Tampa Bay and Company, Hills­borough County's tourist marketing agency. "Without them, and their leadership as a corporate citizen, we wouldn't even have a back yard."

 

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or 727-893-8252.

 

 

 

On the block

 

Busch Entertainment Corp.

 

Third largest theme park operator in the U.S. with 10 parks including Sea Worlds in Orlando, San Antonio and San Diego; Busch Gardens in Tampa and Williamsburg, Va., Sesame Place near Philadelphia and four water parks including Adventure Island in Tampa. Plans four parks in Dubai.

 

Revenues of $1.3-billion and net income of $162-million in 2007.

 

---

 

Prospective suitors:

 

Parques Reunidos, Madrid

 

Owns 10 amusement parks including Kennywood in Pittsburgh, StoryLand in Bartlett, N.H. and Lake Compounce in Bristol, Conn; eight aquariums; 20 water parks (nine of them in the U.S.) and 14 Boomers! Family Entertainment Center which has three South Florida locations. Owns Silver Springs in Ocala.

 

Revenues of $570-million in 2007. Income N/A.

 

Merlin Entertainments Group, London

 

Owns five theme parks including Alton Towers and Thorpe Park in England, Gardaland in Italy and Heide Park in Germany. Also four Legolands including Los Angeles and Chicago; 29 Sea Life aquariums in Europe, 8 Madame Tussaud Wax Museums including New York and Las Vegas and the London Dungeon and the London Eye

 

Revenues of $1.1-billion and operating income of $200-million in 2007.

 

---

 

Busch Gardens importance to the Tampa Bay tourist economy Attendance: 4.4-million in 2007, more than twice the biggest pro sports franchise. More than half were overnight tourists.

 

Surveys consistently rank the park with weather and beaches as top reasons out-of-town visitors come here. It spends more on tourist advertising than the two convention and visitors bureaus combined.

 

More than half of Hillsborough overnight leisure visitors spent a day there as do a third of all Pinellas County visitors.

 

 

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From the Virginia Gazette:

 

Sale expected soon on Busch theme parks

 

January 15, 2009

 

WILLIAMSBURG - The Financial Times of London reported Thursday that bidders are lining up for the anticipated sale of $7 billion in assets that brewing giant InBev wants to unload as part of its $52 billion takeover of Anheuser-Busch.

 

Chief among those assets is Busch Entertainment, which operates 10 theme parks including Busch Gardens Europe and Water Country USA. The sale is expected to reap up to $4 billion.

 

The Times listed likely bidders as Merlin Entertainment and Candover, both based in the United Kingdom. Strategic bidders may include Walt Disney and Universal Studios. Even Six Flags, which owns 20 theme parks and was long been rumored as a suitor for at least some of the 1,200 acres owned by the Williamsburg Pottery, is expected to ask for the sales memorandum.

 

Merlin owns Madame Tussauds and Legoland. Candover is a buyout group that owns Madrid-based Parques Reunidos, which operates 50 parks in a dozen countries. No longer mentioned is Dubai World, for which Busch Entertainment is building four parks.

 

Possible strategic bidders include media group Walt Disney, the world's biggest operator of theme parks, and Universal Studios, which is majority-owned by the US television and film business, NBC Universal.

 

Six Flags, which owns 20 theme parks in the US, Mexico and Canada, is also expected to ask for the sales memorandum.

 

The Financial Times quoted a person "familiar with the planned sale" as saying the initiative would test loan markets to see whether private equity groups could raise enough debt to launch bids for the company. A private equity bid would likely need to borrow about $2 billion to fund the deal.

 

If no bidder is willing to pay what Anheuser-Busch InBev wants for Busch Entertainment, the company could spin off Busch Entertainment through a "demerger."

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Realizing Disney has many different types of operating businesses, the following quote from Bob Iger's opening letter in Disney's 2008 annual report sounds interesting!

 

Given the environment, we will likely see some interesting acquisition opportunities, and given the strength of our balance sheet, many could be enticing. Rest assured, though, no matter how inexpensive these opportunities may look, we will not relax our standards in terms of the quality of the assets we seek to purchase, their fit within our Company's businesses and core strategies, or their prospects for delivering strong returns.
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Wow, it does sound as though Disney is seriously considering acquiring Busch Entertainment (or at least parts of it).

 

My feeling is they want JUST the SeaWorld parks since they would fit nicely into their current business, which might mean the Busch Gardens and Sesame Place parks could be sold to another buyer or spun off.

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Here's the latest update from The Orlando Sentinel:

 

Busch in talks to sell 10 theme parks across U.S.

March 6, 2009

 

Talks are under way to auction off Busch Entertainment Corp., the parent company of SeaWorld Orlando, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay and eight other theme parks around the country.

 

Executives at newly merged beer giant Anheuser-Busch InBev said Thursday they are pressing forward with plans to sell at least $7billion in assets this year, with Orlando-based Busch Entertainment Corp. among them.

 

Already, representatives for Merlin Entertainments Group, a British amusement-park operator, have discussed a potential bid with A-B InBev. Multiple companies across the United States and Europe also are reportedly interested in a deal that analysts say could be worth between $2billion and $4.5billion.

 

"We have been approached by different players" interested in bidding on various A-B InBev businesses, company Chief Executive Officer Carlos Brito said during a conference call with analysts Thursday. "We're progressing on several fronts."

 

Brito's comments came the same day that Belgium-based A-B InBev, the world's biggest brewer, revealed its 2008 profits fell 41percent.

 

'A very active property'

Brito would not name the divisions his company intends to sell, other than to say it has identified five to six assets that "tend to be noncore for us" and which would be spun off with minimal disruption to the company's other operations. But industry watchers say Busch Entertainment is on that list.

 

"I think it continues to be a very active property in terms of people looking at it and thinking about it," said Dennis Speigel, president of Cincinnati-based International Theme Park Services.

 

Busch also owns Aquatica and Discovery Cove in Orlando.

 

Among those that have held talks with A-B InBev is Merlin Entertainments, whose current portfolio includes Legolands in four countries and the 440-foot London Eye Ferris wheel. Merlin is majority-owned by the Blackstone Group, a private-equity firm that also owns a 50percent stake in Universal Orlando.

 

But Spain's Parques Reunidos, which owns 67 parks in nine countries, has also reportedly hired investment bankers in anticipation of a bid. Other rumored suitors, who could seek to bid on individual Busch parks, include Six Flags and even the Walt Disney Co., though some analysts think a Disney bid is unlikely.

 

Potential bidders will say little publicly. Spokesmen for Blackstone and Walt Disney Parks and Resorts would not comment. A spokeswoman for Six Flags did not return a phone call and representatives for Parques Reunidos could not be reached.

 

Part of paying down debt

Selling noncore businesses is a crucial piece of A-B InBev's plan to pay down debt stemming from InBev's $52billion purchase last year of St. Louis-based Anheuser Busch Cos. The combined company has already announced plans to shed some assets this year, including its stake in Tsingtao Brewery Co. for $667million and its American import operation for Canada's Labatt-branded beer.

 

Substantial hurdles remain. The deep credit freeze will make it difficult for prospective buyers to raise the financing needed for a multibillion-dollar purchase.

 

"The downturn in the economy has certainly slowed the process down," Speigel said. "This is a big game, and it takes a lot of money just to be able to put the ante in the middle of the table."

 

Brito said A-B InBev will not rush any sales, as the company could generate enough cash flow to meet its debt obligations this year. But he said he is optimistic it will be able to strike deals.

 

"We're confident that, with the quality of the assets that we're talking to some players [about], that we'll have some news for this year," he said.

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It's official, Blackstone has purchased Busch Entertainment! :)

 

Link to the press release

 

From the Associated Press:

 

Anheuser-Busch sells off SeaWorld, other theme parks for $2.7 billion

Associated Press

 

BRUSSELS -- Anheuser-Busch said Thursday that it will raise $2.7 billion from selling its U.S. theme parks to the Blackstone Group.

 

The sale of three SeaWorld parks, two Busch Gardens parks and five others is the largest of a string of Anheuser-Busch InBev selloffs to help pay for the $52 billion takeover deal that formed it last year.

 

AB InBev's Busch Entertainment Corp. is the second-largest theme park operator in the United States after Disney and attracts some 25 million visitors every year.

 

AB InBev chief executive Carlos Brito said the theme parks were "not a core business" for the maker of the world's best-selling beer Budweiser and that the sale was "another important milestone in our commitment to de-leverage the company."

 

"We are pleased to have reached an agreement with a buyer who understand the industry and has a strategic vision for the business," he said.

 

Blackstone will pay $2.3 billion in cash and give AB InBev the right to participate in Blackstone's return on its initial investment, an amount that is capped at $400 million.

 

Busch Entertainment Corp. runs three SeaWorld parks in Orlando, Fla., San Antonio, Texas and San Diego, as well as two Busch Gardens parks in Tampa, Fla. Williamsburg, Virginia. It also has family entertainment attractions in Orlando, Tampa, Williamsburg and Langhorne, Pennsylvania.

 

Blackstone said it had "long admired" the theme parks and planned to invest in and grow the company.

 

"We are delighted to be investing in a company with such iconic brands, irreplaceable assets and strong growth prospects," said senior managing director Michael Chae.

 

I think this is the best possible outcome for BEC.

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From the Orlando Sentinel:

 

SEAWORLD SOLD

SeaWorld Orlando, Busch Gardens, other parks sold to Blackstone Group

After months of negotiations, SeaWorld will be sold to the Blackstone Group for as much as $2.7 billion.

 

Shamu finally has a new owner.

 

After months of negotiations, Anheuser-Busch InBev announced this morning that it will sell SeaWorld Orlando-owner Busch Entertainment Corp. to the Blackstone Group for as much as $2.7 billion.

 

Blackstone, the New York-based private-equity giant, will pay AB InBev $2.3 billion in cash plus give the beer brewer a right to participate in up to $400 million of its initial returns. Blackstone will own 100 percent of Busch Entertainment.

 

The deal has sweeping implications both for Orlando and the global tourism industry.

 

Orlando-based Busch Entertainment is the second-busiest theme-park operator in the United States, with a chain of 10 theme parks that stretches from Pennsylvania to California and draws roughly 25 million visitors a year. It has approximately 10,000 employees in Central Florida alone, where its properties include SeaWorld, Aquatica and Discovery Cove.

 

Blackstone, meanwhile, already holds a 50 percent stake in Orlando's No. 2 theme-park resort -- and fierce SeaWorld competitor -- Universal Orlando. The buyout firm also owns Merlin Entertainments Group, the British amusement-park operator with properties such as Legoland theme parks and Madame Tussauds Wax Museums.

 

Blackstone will retain Busch Entertainment's management and operate the company as a standalone investment.

 

"This is an exciting day in BEC history," Busch Entertainment President Jim Atchison said in an interview. Blackstone brings "an awful lot of strategic vision for us. We're going to continue to grow the business together."

 

In a prepared statement, Joseph Baratta, a senior managing director at Blackstone,said, "We are pleased to have the opportunity to acquire this business. We have deep sector experience and look forward to working with the excellent BEC management team to continue to invest in and grow the company."

 

With the deal, Busch Entertainment will for the first time become an independent company, rather than operate as a division under the corporate umbrella of much larger beer conglomerates. Because of that, Busch will soon begin hiring to fill roles such as legal, procurement and tax that had previously been handled by Anheuser-Busch.

 

"This is a big thing for Orlando, not just BEC," Atchison said. He added that no jobs will be cut as part of the transaction.

 

Visitors are likely to see few changes at the parks. The deal includes a sponsorship agreement with Anheuser-Busch that will permit Busch Entertainment to continue using names such as "Busch Gardens" and continue promotional campaigns such the "Here's to Heroes" program in which members of the military can get free admission.

 

Perhaps the most noticeable change: Budweiser's iconic Clydesdale horses will be removed from SeaWorld and Busch Gardens parks. Atchison said the horses will remain a part of Anheuser-Busch's beer-marketing division. Some Anheuser-Busch signage will also likely be taken down in the coming weeks.

 

But beyond that, "I don't think guests will see a change," Atchison said. "There's going to be a lot of continuity."

 

As rumors of the sale swirled, analysts speculated that Blackstone could ultimately seek to package Busch with Merlin ahead of an initial public offering or pair it with Universal Orlando -- which it co-owns with NBC Universal -- to create a more formidable competitor to Walt Disney World. But Blackstone says it does not intend to pursue any such combination; the firm noted it bought Busch, Universal and Merlin out of separate investment funds with separate investors and interests.

 

"These will be maintained as separate companies," Blackstone spokeswoman Christine Anderson said, though she added that Blackstone's history with other tourism properties will nonetheless be an asset to Busch Entertainment. "We bring tremendous and I think unique experience to this sort of investment because of the investments we've done previously.

 

A-B InBev had been seeking a buyer for its theme parks since completing the $52 billion merger of beer giants InBev and Aheuser-Busch last year. Executives have said they want to sell of non-core assets to use the proceeds to pay down debt stemming from the merger.

 

"Busch Entertainment Corporation is a high-performing asset with a world-class management team, but not a core business for Anheuser-Busch InBev," A-B InBev's Carlos Brito said in a written statement. "We are pleased to have reached an agreement with a buyer who understands the industry and has a strategic vision for the business. The sale of BEC represents another important milestone in our commitment to de-leverage the company and will also allow us to continue to focus on our core brewing business."

 

The sale of Busch parks has been closely watched in financial circles. It is the largest private-equity buyout so far this year.

 

It's going to be sad not seeing the Clydesdales at Busch any more... :(

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