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Busch Gardens owner could spin off theme parks in initial public offering

TAMPA — Busch Gardens, a theme park known for its roller coasters, is facing its own thrilling ride.

SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment Inc., which owns 10 parks including Busch Gardens and SeaWorld, is close to filing to go public early next year, according to reports by Reuters and Bloomberg News.

Wall Street firms Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase have been hired to handle the initial public offering, which could result in the fourth change of ownership for Busch Gardens since 2008. The move is expected to raise $500 million for SeaWorld Parks' parent company, Blackstone Group.

The New York-based investment firm bought the amusement parks from Anheuser-Busch InBev in 2009 for $2.7 billion, not long after InBev bought the St. Louis-based beer company. Blackstone also owns the United Kingdom-based Merlin Entertainments Group, which owns Legoland and considered going public a few years ago.

Spinning off from a diverse, global firm — companies in Blackstone's portfolio employ more than 730,000 people — could benefit the theme parks, said John Gerner, managing director of Leisure Business Advisors based in Virginia, about an hour from Busch Gardens' Williamsburg park. Blackstone earned a reputation for running quality, guest-oriented theme parks, which should make them attractive to potential investors.

"This will provide more independence and ability for the company to pursue goals that it wants to achieve long term," Gerner said.

On the flip side, he said, not having the mighty backing of Blackstone could limit the parks' resources to weather a financial crisis, such as another recession or an accident. SeaWorld Orlando's attendance dropped from 5.8 million in 2009 to 5.1 million in 2010 after a park trainer was killed by a whale. It also could affect the company's ability to get favorable loan terms for expensive new attractions.

Peter Rose, a spokesman for Blackstone, said he could not comment on a possible IPO, citing SEC regulations. Fred Jacobs, a spokesman at SeaWorld Parks in Orlando, also declined comment.

Susan Thurston can be reached at sthurston@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3110.

Busch Gardens owner could spin off theme parks in initial public offering 12/19/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 19, 2012 8:10pm]
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