TAMPA — Ending a 50-year run, the brewers of Anheuser-Busch beers on Wednesday sold Busch Gardens Africa in Tampa along with nine other theme parks including SeaWorld to a New York private equity fund.
No stranger to the theme park world, Stephen Schwarzman's Blackstone Group agreed to pay $2.7 billion to Anheuser-Busch InBev for its Busch Entertainment Corp.
The acquisition and continued rumblings of changes in the ownership structure of Universal signal a big shift in the balance of power in Central Florida's theme park capital, dominated by Walt Disney Co.
Blackstone already owns half of Universal Orlando and all of Merlin Entertainments, a British company that runs theme parks in Europe, Legolands in the United States, the London Eye Wheel and Madame Tussauds wax museums. Merlin has been scouting Orlando for sites for a Legoland.
"We are delighted to be investing in a company with such iconic brands, irreplaceable assets and strong growth prospects," said Michael Chae, senior managing director of Blackstone.
It acquires the world's second-largest theme park collection, including Adventure Island water park in Tampa, SeaWorld parks in Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio, Texas, and Sesame Place near Philadelphia.
Blackstone pledged minimal changes, no consolidation among its diverse parks for now and retained management at all 10 Busch parks.
"It's business as usual, only now we are an independent, stand-alone company," said Jim Atchison, who remains president and chief executive officer of the Busch Entertainment Corp. "Blackstone understands this is a capital-intensive business that requires continuous investments in new attractions. Our employees tell us they are excited this is all finally settled."
The company, which employs 3,000 at Busch Gardens and 7,000 at three SeaWorld parks in Orlando, will be hiring some legal, financial, tax and accounting help to staff up its Orlando corporate headquarters.
While the brewing giant will move its trademark teams of Clydesdales out of the parks in the next few months, Anheuser-Busch InBev will maintain a promotional sponsorship, so Busch Gardens parks in Tampa and Williamsburg, Va., will not change names. There is no agreement for Anheuser-Busch InBev beers to be the only brews sold in the parks, but Atchison is not ringing up MillerCoors to see if they want to install taps.
"We share a lot of DNA with Anheuser-Busch InBev," he said. I'm a Bud and Bud Light guy."
Busch's Belgian owners made it no secret when they took over the world's largest brewing company last year that theme parks would not be part of the new formula. The parks have been for sale ever since.
Analysts a year ago figured the parks, which generated $162 million in profits on revenues of $1.3 billion in 2008, could fetch up to $5 billion.
"I think (Blackstone) got a good deal, considering the credit markets," said Dennis Spiegel, president of theme park consultant ITEC. "The big thing is they kept the management that got them here in place."
The new theme park company will be saddled with $1.3 billion in debt. That's because Blackstone put up $1 billion in cash, borrowed $1.3 billion and is diverting up to $400 million more from future earnings to Anheuser-Busch InBev.
The sale signaled the final curtain on two generations of personal Busch family stewardship of the theme parks. Auggie Busch, who once had a winter home in St. Pete Beach, launched Busch Gardens when he put a brewery in Tampa. August Busch, his successor who owns a home in Lakeland, treated the park like an extension of his back yard. He even landscaped the backstage areas. Busch bought the SeaWorld parks in 1989.
The Tampa park opened in 1959 as a small bird garden and hospitality center that served as a gathering spot for brewery tours. Eventually the park grew into one of the nation's biggest zoos and 11th most popular theme park. The brewery was closed in 1995.
Park visitors were pleased by news of new owners.
Mark Smith, a 49-year-old Tampa annual pass holder, was glad InBev found a buyer.
"That's great … got to find someone to keep upgrading," Smith said.
Staff writer Jared Leone contributed to this report. Mark Albright can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8252.