No official word — but a ton of new speculation — surfaced on Blackstone Group's continuing talks Tuesday to acquire 10 theme parks including Busch Gardens Africa in Tampa and Sea World from Anheuser Busch InBev.
While more reports quoted anonymous sources confirming a deal is either imminent or could evaporate, some turned to speculate on fine points. The Times of London said Blackstone, a private equity firm that owns all of British theme park operator Merlin Entertainments that is poised to go public in early 2010, now intends to keep Busch Entertainment Corp. separate from Merlin for the time being.
Also, the price is described as $2.5 billion to $3 billion. But some observers say Anheuser Busch InBev, which has said it will not accept a distress sale price, is exploring whether to keep up to a 30 percent stake in the parks.
Complicating matters: Blackstone owns half of Universal Orlando. So it needs an okay from partners General Electric Inc. and Vivendi, both of which are weighing whether to sell some or all their entertainment units to cable operator Comcast Corp.
That also means Hollywood producer Steven Spielberg, who has been getting $20 million a year as creative consultant to Universal Orlando, may have to be paid hundreds of millions for his interest in the event of a change in control or a debt refinancing that is required in April.