|By Lori Weisberg, The San Diego
Union-TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Sep. 24, 2009--A major private equity firm with holdings in well-known theme parks, including Legoland, may be poised to purchase Anheuser-Busch InBev's amusement attractions, among them SeaWorld in San Diego, the Dow Jones News Service reported yesterday.
Citing an unnamed source, Dow Jones said the suitor is the Blackstone Group, which has stakes in Universal Orlando and Merlin Entertainments Group, which operates Legoland and the Madame Tussauds wax museums. It also is the largest operator of visitor attractions in Europe.
A Blackstone spokesman yesterday refused to comment, while Sea World spokesman Dave Koontz said, "We do not speculate on rumor."
Such an acquisition, though, would not be unexpected given Blackstone's already diverse theme park holdings and Anheuser-Busch's 10 theme parks, including three SeaWorlds, two Busch Gardens among others, analysts said.
"The rumor is Blackstone is involved because they already own 51 percent of Universal in Orlando, and it's the same kind of entertainment as a SeaWorld, which is also a big player in Orlando," said Thor Degelmann, co-owner of LEDO International, a Newport Beach firm that consults on developing and managing leisure and entertainment destinations.
"Now they'd have a corner on the water park and SeaWorld in Orlando and Universal's theme parks in Orlando. They build a bigger critical mass for themselves in terms of creating visitation."
In San Diego, SeaWorld attracts more than 4 million visitors annually.
When Belgian brewer InBev acquired Anheuser-Busch last year for roughly $52 billion, there was much speculation about what would become of the St. Louis company's vast theme park holdings.
At the time, Chief Executive Carlos Brito, while touring Anheuser-Busch headquarters and addressing employees, said he was looking for assets to unload, with the goal of saving $1.5 billion annually by 2011.
The thinking was to sell "non-core" assets to help to pay down its debt from the Anheuser purchase.
Still, there have been no concrete signals that the theme park division was actually up for sale, until yesterday's report that Blackstone may be interested.
Mel Cecil, co-owner of LEDO, said he could see how a Blackstone acquisition might make sense, given Merlin's operation of Legoland, which last year opened a Sea Life Aquarium and recently announced plans to open a water park at the Carlsbad park.
Still, those water attractions pale in comparison to Sea World, Cecil noted.
"If Blackstone were involved, I'd wrap Sea World and Universal in one operation and Merlin in another operation," he said. "SeaWorld is a great operation, and I would think they would have good positive cash flow and have always been successful."
In San Diego County in addition to Legoland, Blackstone has a stake in the Golden Door spa in Escondido.
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