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Robert Niles
Editor

Blackstone Group buys the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens theme park chain for $2.3 billion+

Published: October 7, 2009 at 9:17 AM

Busch Entertainment Corp., owner of the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens theme parks, announced this morning that it had completed a deal to be bought by the Blackstone Group - the world's largest private equity group, for $2.3 billion in cash, plus up to $400 million in additional considerations.

I'll be speaking with BEC chief Jim Atchison in just a few minutes and will update soon.

*Update: Just got off the phone with Atchison, and he said that Blackstone bought 100% of the parks (me - FAIL on that prediction), but that the parks would be operating "business as usual." Atchison and the entire management team has been retained to run the new company, which will continue to go by the name Busch Entertainment Corp. (though he said that they might start using the alternate name "Worlds of Discovery" more going forward).

The Busch Gardens parks will retain that name, and A-B will continue to have the pouring rights in the parks, thanks to a long-term sponsorship deal. The only change? Say good-bye to the Clydesdales. (Although, Atchison phrased it much more diplomatically than my blunt paraphrase.)

Quotes coming; give me a few minutes to transcribe.

Oh, and he declined to spill anything about a new ride in Williamsburg.

*Update 2: Jim Atchison "This change is really a change in our corporate ownership, but it is very much a business as usual approach for BEC. The existing leadership team within BEC is all being retained and will be in their same roles moving forward," Atchison said.

"At the end of the day, the brands, the quality, the brands, the commitment to the parks and guest service and new attractions will remain as high as ever."

The Sesame Workshop and Anheuser-Busch brands are among those that will remain in the parks, he said. Busch beer brands will continue to be poured at the parks, and the Busch Gardens name will remain on the parks in Tampa, Fla. and Williamsburg, Va., as they were sold to Blackstone as part of the deal.

"The sponsorship agreement [with Anheuser-Busch/InBev] allows us to maintain that formal sponsor feel in the parks, but there will be changes moving forward," Atchison said.

Probably one of the more notable changes, he said, will be that the iconic Clydesdale horses will be moved from the parks, and instead go on tour to promote their A-B brands. Atchison said that A-B's "Here's to the Heroes" promotion offering free admission to military personnel will continue in the BEC parks for 2010.

I did get one prediction correct, though: The was a stand-alone deal, not related to Blackstone's investments in Merlin or Universal Orlando. So don't look for any new ticket or vacation deals between those parks, or for Busch to change its policies regarding animal care. Blackstone owns 80% of Merlin Entertainments, which has a somewhat different policy toward animals in its parks than does Busch.

"Policies, practices, customs at any other Blackstone entity really are different and apart from BEC," Atchison said. "I think we have set the industry standard and hold the bar higher than anyone in the world with respect to the care and quality of our husbandry, our veterinary team, our animal training. We're very, very proud of the work we do."

Atchison denied that having the parks up for sale for so long prompted Busch theme park management to delay or defer any new projects.

"We have been very focused to executing at the highest level in our parks. We haven't been distracted," Atchison said. But he declined to offer any specifics on new projects that might be coming, including a replacement for the recently closed Big Bad Wolf coaster at Busch Gardens Williamsburg.

"We are always looking at new attraction concepts within our parks and certainly Williamsburg is no different. We have some great concepts and ideas that are in various stages of development, either from the drawing board or even further along. We're not prepared to talk about the Wolf site - yet - but I understand full and well that people miss that ride," Atchison said.

"Blackstone is committed to support the business, maintaining all the things that have made the business unique and helped create our DNA. That involves, among many other things, ongoing capital investment in the parks. They have made to me very clear commitments to that. They are focused on continuing to keep the parks at the high level of quality that they are, and that involved having new attractions. They are committed to growing the business, something that I'm obviously equally committed to," Atchison said.

"Anheuser-Busch certainly made their fair share of investments and Blackstone is looking to continue that level of support."

Replies (45)

Jack Curley

Published: October 7, 2009 at 9:23 AM

You realize that they waited until today just to spite you, right?
TH Creative
Writer

Published: October 7, 2009 at 9:26 AM

Blackstone, the New York-based private-equity giant, will pay AB InBev $2.3 billion in cash plus give the beer brewer a right to participate in its return on investment up to $400 million.

"$2.3 billion?!"

PENNIES!

Exactly how BAD is the balance in the WOD check book?

David Sutter

Published: October 7, 2009 at 9:27 AM

Glade its finished...Hay robert Think I beat you check you blog ....
Barry Wallace

Published: October 7, 2009 at 9:47 AM

"Additional incentives" etc - what does that mean exactly? I guess that means things like naming rights for the Busch parks, selling their beer and other branded products that the patrons of those parks have become accustomed to, which is good I suppose.

If 2.3 - 3 Billion is "pennies"...why? What do you estimate they are actually worth?

Is there a stipulation in the agreement that all the current management and staff will keep their jobs?

And what about the structure - will they morph into a sister "child" company like Merlin, except based in the US?

151.145.238.92

Published: October 7, 2009 at 9:53 AM

Wooo whooo! This deal is nothing but the best for WOD! A move from ABInbev who actively looked to sell the parks is great. Blackstone wanted the parks, you dont drop $2.5 billion on something to watch it go to pot. They have the financial means to support the parks and keep that quality standard that we have all become accustom to over the years.
TH Creative
Writer

Published: October 7, 2009 at 9:56 AM

Mr. Wallace,

They just bought ten theme parks. Media reports put the construction cost of IOA (one park, one hotel, two parking garages, some roads and one entertainment district) at $1 billion ... ten years ago.

Disney just bought Marvel for $4 billion.

I reiterate PENNIES!

Blackstone is making a BOLD MOVE ... and getting a bargain price.

THC

Barry Wallace

Published: October 7, 2009 at 9:58 AM

I posted my comment before your update, so, um, never mind on most of them :)

Why no Clydesdales? What sets them apart?

TH Creative
Writer

Published: October 7, 2009 at 10:04 AM

This sure puts Universal in a strange position. One of its main investors is now one of its competitors. Meanwhile another of its competitors has its product placed in their parks.

Odd.

Mike K

Published: October 7, 2009 at 10:07 AM

Price sounds about right. Cedar Fair bought Paramount at 1.24 billion for a bunch of seasonal parks, 2 billion for a bunch of year round parks sounds right.
Vickie Boyd

Published: October 7, 2009 at 10:14 AM

No Clydesdales? Well then I have a collectible Platinum Pass from BGW. Never going to give that up!
TH Creative
Writer

Published: October 7, 2009 at 10:24 AM

Mr. Mike,

Four of the Blackstone parks were in the top 20 in attendance in 2008 - welcoming almost 18 million guests. Cedar Fair Entertainment had just two parks in the top 20 -- welcoming about a third of what the Blackstone backs did (a little over 6 million people).

Blackstone got these parks cheap.

THC

TH Creative
Writer

Published: October 7, 2009 at 10:39 AM

Incredible! With this acquisition, Blackstone now has interests in Merlin, Busch and Universal Florida. In 2008, Blackstone's parks welcomed 47 million guests. The acquisition of Busch jumps that number to 70 million.

VERY IMPRESSIVE!

24.167.232.232

Published: October 7, 2009 at 10:41 AM

Does anyone know if this affects Grants Farm in Missouri?????
This park is also owned by A & B.
Jason Read

Published: October 7, 2009 at 10:56 AM

Is anyone else extremely disappointed that they won't actively pusue synergies-- particularly in the Orlando market?

Seems like a real waste of a great opportunity. I guess now we'll just have to sit and wait to see what happens with NBCUni

151.145.238.93

Published: October 7, 2009 at 11:00 AM

Grant's Farm will not be affected as it is not part of Busch Entertainment.
75.110.98.159

Published: October 7, 2009 at 11:04 AM

WOW guess I'll have to be sure to stock up on Clydsdales momentos when I go in a couple of weeks. It's really going to be weird not seeing those beautiful beast at the parks. :(
TH Creative
Writer

Published: October 7, 2009 at 11:18 AM

I wonder if Blackstone's relationship with Universal Orlando includes a piece of Wet & Wild ... which of course is in direct competition with Aquatica..

2008 Attendance for Orlando water parks:

Blizzard Beach & Typhoon Lagoon (Disney) - 3.95 million

Wet & Wild, Adventure Island (Tampa) and Aquatica (Blackstone) - 2.85 million

TH Creative
Writer

Published: October 7, 2009 at 12:25 PM

More Fun With Attendance Stats!

based on 2008 numbers. If Blackstone had bought the Busch Parks and Universal and added that attendance to their current Merlin Entertainment parks (approx 84 million), they would still be 33 million short of the total Disney parks attendance (117 million).

Larry Zimmerman

Published: October 7, 2009 at 2:22 PM

I think I'll have a Sam Adams to toast the deal...
Randy Scott

Published: October 7, 2009 at 2:40 PM

I wonder if this deal includes Grant's Farm in St Louis? That's one of our favorite places in St Louis to visit and it's the home of the Clydesdales. They rest there when the they are not on tour. They live better than most people in St Louis do!
75.132.9.93

Published: October 7, 2009 at 3:35 PM

Grant's Farm is not included. It is not a theme park. It was barely included in the orginal InBev takeover.
tilikum shamu

Published: October 7, 2009 at 4:44 PM

Again, the deception continues. The Clydesdales on exhibit don't belong to AB. They belong to the park. They'll be auctioned off like the others. AB was a company that used to say "Making Friends is our business."
ABINBEV is a company that says, screw our friends, we're going to sell off everything that helps diversify our company — and the knucklehead public will continue to think of Budwieser as America's beer. Good move for BEC. Bad move for ABINBRED.
Derek Potter

Published: October 7, 2009 at 6:11 PM

Good news. Also good to know that they are retaining the management. I hope that they invest in these parks and maintain their quality. A company that just spent 2.3 billion tends to look for ways to cut cost, and cutting cost tends to have an effect on the quality of a park.

It does seem like a pretty good price for those parks. I would be curious to see their balance sheets and just how profitable they are. The quality is obviously good across the board, and the costs are likely high. Attendance is good, but with a year round schedule. Blackstone is no slouch in the money department, but I'll be curious to see the parks in action without the giant corporation (and their bank account) behind them. Just playing devil's advocate I guess. The new owner has a great reputation and I'm sure they will keep things going well for Busch Gardens and Sea World.

68.202.103.179

Published: October 7, 2009 at 6:17 PM

The Clydesdales are owned by Anheuser-Busch, the same company that owns Grant's Farm, not Busch Entertainment Corporation.
Jason Jackson

Published: October 7, 2009 at 6:19 PM

The Clydesdales belong to AB, not the park. They come from the AB Clydesdale Program and thus will not be returning to the parks. That is sad!
James Rao
Writer

Published: October 7, 2009 at 6:31 PM

The refurb at DCA alone is costing Disney $1.1 billion and Tokyo DisneySea cost $4 billion to build. I hate myself for it, but I completely agree with TH Creative: $2.3 billion is a steal for all the Busch parks.

And now we can rest easy knowing the parks are (hopefully) in good hands.

71.136.226.197

Published: October 7, 2009 at 6:37 PM

I know most people on here are visitors to the parks but I work at one and I am concerned about the changes that are bound to happen.Our hours have been slashed to the bone right now(I have only 9 hours this week)and am worried about my 401k.All of these parks employ alot of people.
Robert Niles
Editor

Published: October 7, 2009 at 7:30 PM

I think that the current cuts have more to do with the recession and a lousy tourism market than any change in ownership.
tilikum shamu

Published: October 7, 2009 at 8:09 PM

Again, the horses in the parks are NOT owned by AB. They are not a part of the Budwieser Clydesdale hitches (based in Merrimack, St. Louis and Ft. Collins.) They are property of the parks. The majority of the horses at SWO have already been moved off property to private farms. Same was done with the dalmatians that were part of the hitch (although they actually were adopted by park employees.) Why would you continue a marketing deal with the new owners of the park, only to take the single most identifiable icon of the company out of the parks? Also, I wonder of the 1.3 million in debt that BEC will take on, if any of that will be bought by the Busch family. I think that's only wishful thinking at this point, as I suspect they're going to take their hundreds of millions and their private jets and go play elsewhere. Very sad. I've been a platinum pass holder since they started the program and was one of the first to warn of all the changes and the sale. They denied, denied, denied. First it was the hospitality house, then it was the hitching of the horses and the removal of the Donkey (which, opposed to the Clydesdales WAS actually owned by AB.) I doubt that we'll be renewing.
99.13.63.239

Published: October 7, 2009 at 8:09 PM

Robert, I work at SWSD and the cuts came with InBev demanding us go to a zero budget. Prior to InBev I'd get 20-30 hours a week off season. When InBev came I was lucky if I got that during summer.
Pyra Dong

Published: October 7, 2009 at 8:12 PM

I work at an AB park too and agree with Robert, the (drastically) cut hours are from the economy.

Based on what I've read about Blackstone and many TPI reader's comments on the org, I'm very excited about the purchase. I'm looking forward to good things. I only hope that park guests are as enthusiastic. (I recall several guests who seemed to just be clearly having a bad day or bad luck, would blame it on the buyout from InBev-- I hope this doesn't happen in the future)

And yes, I'm also curious to what's the future of animal shows at the parks. SeaWorld just isn't SeaWorld without those awesome shows.

Hmmm... and I wonder if I can use my employee ID and get free into the other parks under Blackstone... Hmmm... Roadtrip???

Justin Trinh

Published: October 7, 2009 at 9:12 PM

Regarding Blackstone getting a steal by purchasing BEC for only $2.3+ billion. On the local news today they mention that if this sale took place two or three years ago, BEC would have probably been sold for around $6 to $7 billion. Thought it was interesting to pass on.

On another note, I'm honestly excited about this. I have been following this since InBev purchased Anheuser-Busch and out of all the possible suitors for BEC, Blackstone was my personal favorite and I'm excited to see how BEC moves forward from this deal.

68.107.184.168

Published: October 7, 2009 at 9:35 PM

I think Anheuser-Busch left its American pride.
Amy Tupper

Published: October 8, 2009 at 2:01 AM

Personally, I'm excited and thrilled to hear that the "Here's to the Heroes" campaign will continue. At least through next year anyway. :)
71.241.0.250

Published: October 8, 2009 at 2:43 AM

Dont buy it. I worked for a company that was "taken over" by Blackstone Group, an inventory service called RGIS. Within a couple of years they had gutted the company by closing offices and running off any of the long time employees who had built the company. This was all done in an effort to save money and give their principal owners more money. Anybody see what the CEO of Blackstone pulled down last year- over 600 million dollars in compensation.
Don't know what that means for the theme parks, but that is all this company does-take over businesses, cut their costs and them sell them for a large profit. Good Luck Busch Gardens. You are going to need it.
71.136.226.197

Published: October 8, 2009 at 5:56 AM

Inbev slashed our hours not the economy.
66.82.9.23

Published: October 8, 2009 at 6:59 AM

As the family member of a Clydesdale Handler at one of the theme parks I can say that they ARE owned by AB...as well as all of the equipment and dalmations. We knew this was coming, it was just a matter of when. They've been scaling back the Clydesdale program since InBev bought AB. Things started changing even before that deal went through because of the anticipation of it.
Jason Jackson

Published: October 8, 2009 at 7:41 AM

Well I am not sure at Sea World, but the Clydesdales at Busch Gardens Williamsburg come to the park in Budweiser Clydesdales truck each year, so at least those are owned by AB.
Robert Niles
Editor

Published: October 8, 2009 at 7:48 AM

"Inbev slashed our hours not the economy"

That must rate among the more naive statements ever posted to this site. I'll grant that InBev doesn't sound like the friendliest company on Earth to work for, but, like any other company, it operates within the context of the economy. Plenty of previously great companies have been cutting hours and letting workers go in this recession.

71.136.226.197

Published: October 8, 2009 at 9:36 AM

attacks on your bloggers is very unprofessional.
Randy Scott

Published: October 8, 2009 at 2:40 PM

Grant's Farm in St. Louis is still operating a web site. Maybe it's too soon to take it down, but I'm hopeful that AB will still maintain GF. But I'm not in the "loop" like the others on here seem to be.
69.118.63.193

Published: October 8, 2009 at 5:50 PM

It is a shame that the clidestales are leaving. Busch Gardens in Williamsburg is my favorite park out of the many I have been to. I hope it remaines that way. As far as the big bad wolf goes I went to say good-by to it. I hope they put an awesome coaster in!
Peter Stephens

Published: October 9, 2009 at 1:36 PM

I've been a BGE season-passholder for years on end. This has to be considered good news in the same sort of way so many of us considered the InBev acquisition to be bad news. Hopefully, Blackstone set aside a few (say 25-30 million) dollars for improvements and a new coaster to replace BBW! As much as I love BGE, the heavy crowds (especially weekends) and lack of coasters begins to wear thin regardless of how good the food is and how pretty the landscaping is. I-305, just up the road (which is the "new state-of-the-art" and, perhaps, a top-10-in-the-world) will likely provide the impetus required to move a new coaster @ BGE along quickly.
151.145.238.92

Published: October 10, 2009 at 7:11 AM

I work at one of the Sea World parks and I have had serious concerns all season about the comming sale. Most of the team members and guests I have talked to have the same concerns. The question as to what is going to happen to all the animals not just the clydesdales is still not answered. The whole buisness as usual retoric will only last so long. This is a firm that specialzes in leverage buyouts. They by cheap as possible gut and sell companies. Anyone whe thinks Inbev was bad better rethink that. I think the worst is yet to come. Heaven forbid they push the parks to adopt Merlin's philosophy on the animals. Most of Sea World's animals were born in captivity and are largely pets. Try throwing a pet into the wild. It sounds at least like the clydesdales have a happy future. It is the whales and other aquatic animals I'm worried about. At least the humans involved can see whats comming, plan and prepare. They cant! Even the guests are seeing and feeling the changes. They miss the Sea World that used to be and it is just so sad.
68.192.168.211

Published: October 10, 2009 at 10:22 PM

Private equity firms aren't in the business of building or improving companies. They will cut costs and quality will likely fall some. They will sell the company as soon as the economy improves. Don't expect any cash infusions into infrastructure ( i.e. rides). Nothing new will be built until the vermin management at Blackstone sells the company.

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