2009 in review: The year of the theme park deal

December 28, 2009, 10:16 AM · No, I'm not talking about discounts for customers, though those certainly were available in 2009. This was the year that all five of the top U.S. theme and amusement park chains were involved in a major financial deal.

  • The Walt Disney Company bought Marvel Comics, creating a potentially sticky situation for Universal, which has hosted the Marvel characters in its Islands of Adventure theme park, a deal that Universal says would keep those Marvel characters out of Walt Disney World.

  • Vivendi sold its stake in NBC Universal, clearing the way for Comcast to buy controlling interest in the owner of the Universal Studios theme parks.

  • Six Flags filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization, which it is now trying to emerge from by ceding much of the ownership of the company to its debt holders.

  • Anheuser-Busch InBev sold the Busch Entertainment Corp. theme parks to Blackstone Group, which then renamed the chain SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment.

  • Finally, Cedar Fair, owner of Knott's Berry Farm, Cedar Point, Kings Island and other parks, found a white knight in Apollo Management LP, which agreed to buy the debt-strapped amusement park chain.

    So, which was the biggest deal of the year?

    Let's hear your thoughts about these stories, in the comments.

    Replies (9)

    December 28, 2009 at 11:29 AM · I voted for the sale of Cedar Fair mostly because... well because here is how I viewed each of these deals:

    Six Flags Bankruptcy
    -If this story shocked anyone, then they haven't been paying attention to the woeful situation Six Flags was in. And with a profitable theme park holding like Busch Entertainment Group up for sale, no one would try and buy Six Flags. (Although I thought the same of Cedar Fair.)

    Busch Entertainment Group sale
    -Seeing as how InBev made no qualms from day one about wanting to divest the parks, it was only a matter of time before someone with the capital could swoop in and get a great deal.

    Comcast Buys into Universal
    -While this one was a bit surprising, NBC/Universal parent GE has a history of year end deals to help the stock - espcially when an otherwise not-favorable annual report might come out. (Of course this isn't directly a GE deal but in the end they'll have numbers in the black column of their books.)

    Disney Buys Marvel
    -This is the only other story I considered as #1 but decided ultimately this was about a company knowing where they are weak and instead of the time/money to fix it internally - they looked to see what was out there to purchase and shore up that shortcoming. Disney needed something for the post-toddler male market and they found what they needed in Marvel. Many large companies operate like this. Microsoft and Apple are two that come immediately to mind.

    Cedar Fair Sold
    -Yes the company had been struggling with debt ever since the Paramount purchase. Yes the company had feelers out to sell the two properties closest to me: Worlds of Fun and Valleyfair. But this purchase just broadsided me. I just couldn't imagine the company ever releasing their crown jewel, Cedar Point. I could see everything else sold and still retain the original park. But I was wrong. Hopefully, years from now, this will be the best thing for this chain of regional parks. Only time will tell.

    December 28, 2009 at 12:33 PM · I'm looking at which story will affect the greatest change in the parks.

    To me, that seems to knock out the SeaWorld story - the management team remains the same and I can't see any immediate changes in available capital that would significantly change the operations of the parks.

    Also, I'm not seeing substantial operations changes at either Six Flags or Cedar Fair as a result of their moves. If anything, perhaps the Six Flags bankruptcy might help stabilize the company going forward. But I'm not seeing a management change there yet, either.

    That leaves the Disney and Universal deals. The Comcast acquisition brings the potential for a management shake-up, but with Blackstone also owning a share of Universal Orlando, I can't foretell if or when a change might happen there. In fact, I think that the success or failure of Harry Potter will greater affect who runs the Universal theme parks than the Comcast deal will.

    So... Disney. Buying Marvel is a game-changer for Disney in its pursuit of the pre-teen boy demographic. Disney, with its princesses and Disney Channel shows, owns the girls, but it has lagged in attracting their brothers. Marvel makes that possible, and slams the door on any attempt Universal might have made to extend its use of the characters in and outside of Orlando.

    By directly affecting two theme park companies, Disney and Universal, I think that the Disney acquisition of Marvel is, at this point, the biggest financial story of the year in theme parks.

    December 28, 2009 at 12:42 PM · I think the Marvel Deal is the biggest due to it still not being completely finished. The other news stories are open and shut deals where everybody knows where they are. Disney buying Marvel seems to me to be an uncomplete deal, especially on the theme park side.

    I would find it very hard to believe that Walt Disney World will not get any Marvel attractions in the future. Its too good of a deal to not try to put it at its theme parks, ESPECIALLY WDW

    December 28, 2009 at 2:09 PM · The fact that Disney won't put in said Marvel attractions diminishes the story of them buying Marvel in the theme park realm. Comcast's purchase of Universal wasn't directly theme park related, although there are now more possibilities for the parks. We all knew where Six Flags was headed. It's no surprise that they filed for bankruptcy at all. The only surprise is that they didn't do it sooner. Busch's story is a good thing for the industry. A good company expanded itself by purchasing another good operation.

    The Cedar Fair story is intriguing to me, but it's not an uncommon thing for a company to sell out and go private. In Cedar Fair's case, it's a preventative measure, albeit maybe an unnecessary one. The company is having trouble handling debt while trying to maintain standards, and they seek the umbrella of a multibillion dollar conglomerate. That said, I think it may be a bit of a panic move. It's also not a done deal. A lot of investors don't like this sale at all because they think the price is too low. There are as of today four pending lawsuits against Cedar Fair on behalf of a few shareholders...filed before the vote has even taken place. If it gets ugly, then I'll call this one the story of the year. For now, I'll say the Busch deal was the story of the year.

    December 28, 2009 at 2:12 PM · The reservations I have about calling the Disney-Marvel deal the most significant of the year is that it still seems extremely unlcear to what capacity they can use the characters. The most popular and well-known characters already have movie franchises that Disney can't touch (from my understanding) and due to Islands of Adventure, it seems uncertain that Disney will be able to use the characters in their parks.
    December 28, 2009 at 7:39 PM · There is always Disneyland...

    And I think Disney will figure out how to put attractions in their parks later on. Perhaps all but Spiderman, Hulk, and X Men will be placed at WDW.

    I know what they say,but I have to think that Disney is going to try its hardest to bring them to the parks so that big brother will come with the rest of the family.

    December 29, 2009 at 4:58 AM · Mr. Niles you wrote:

    "... clearing the way for Comcast to buy controlling interest IN the owner of the Universal Studios theme parks."

    Did you mean to write:

    " ... clearing the way for Comcast to buy controlling interest AS the owner of the Universal Studios theme parks?"

    December 29, 2009 at 5:16 AM · The Marvel deal is huge. It should win this poll in a walk!

    Disney is an international entertainment/communications conglomerate. The acquisition of Marvel is a content driven expansion and not simply a financial maneuver.

    Mr. Potter writes: "The fact that Disney won't put in said Marvel attractions diminishes the story of them buying Marvel in the theme park realm."

    I Respond: "Won't put in Marvel attractions?" Sez who?

    Mr. Kirby writes: "The reservations I have about calling the Disney-Marvel deal the most significant of the year is that it still seems extremely unlcear (sic) to what capacity they can use the characters."

    I Respond: "Extremely unclear?" With all due respect, I think you are being extremely short sighted. How about using them in movies and television and the theme parks? How about using them in video games? How about expanding the visibility of Marvel characters via Disney's worldwide distribution network? How about a major presence on Disney XD cable network (targeting boys 9 to 14) which has or will launch franchises in the United States, Latin America, the Netherlands, Greece the UK, Japan and France?

    And while I agree with the most informed TPI poster on the board that we won't see a significant Marvel presence in the theme parks for a long time, I am sure the company will weigh its options and will eventually pursue a Marvel attraction or show.

    December 29, 2009 at 12:04 PM · In response to the anonymous post:

    NBC/Universal will continue as a distinct entity, with Comcast buying 51 percent. So, technically, Comcast will not be the direct owner of the Universal theme parks. Furthermore, since Blackstone has a share of Universal Orlando - Universal's two biggest parks - Comcast's stake in NBC/Uni will represent only a minority share in UO. (Though it might be a plurality, depending upon how much of UO that Blackstone owns. Many have long assumed that was 50 percent, but I've not yet seen a confirmed number.)

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