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

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

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.

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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.

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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.

If Busch Gardens is for sale, who's interested? 11/19/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 25, 2008 3:58pm]

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