Chinese theme park developer buys stake in SeaWorld

March 24, 2017, 12:01 PM · China's Zhonghong Group has bought a minority ownership stake in SeaWorld, making it the company's largest single shareholder. The 21 percent stake in the company comes from private equity firm Blackstone Group, which formerly owned half of the Universal Orlando Resort and currently maintains a stake in Legoland owner Merlin Entertainments.

Blackstone sold for $23 a share, a premium over SeaWorld's $17.31 closing price Thursday but down from the $27 a share that SeaWorld started trading at four years ago. The deal includes licensing and consulting for theme park development in China, which should clear the path for Zhonghong to bring the SeaWorld brand to new parks there.

A commercial real estate investor, Zhonghong Group is the developer behind the Monkey King-themed park outside Beijing that was supposed to open in 2014.

SeaWorld's brand of animal-based entertainment should play well in China, where Chimelong Ocean Kingdom — the most-visited theme park in the world that isn't owned by Disney or Universal — recently opened the nation's first orca breeding program, and Hong Kong's Ocean Park routinely beats neighbor Hong Kong Disneyland on annual attendance.

SeaWorld has lagged its biggest competitors in overseas expansion. Disney and Universal have had parks open outside the United States and for years and Six Flags now has parks under construction in China and Dubai. SeaWorld last year announced plans to license a park in Abu Dhabi, for a 2022 debut, but that would be its first park outside the United States. (The Sea World park in Gold Coast, Australia is not owned by nor affiliated with the American SeaWorld chain.) SeaWorld's previous owner, Anheuser-Busch, in 2008 announced plans to develop a four-park resort on The Palm Jebel Ali in Dubai, which would have included SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, Aquatica, and Discovery Cove. That project died, along with a slew of others around the United Arab Emirates, in the Great Recession.

Flagship SeaWorld Orlando's attendance peaked in 2008, the last full year that Anheuser-Busch owned the parks and gave out free beer to adult visitors. Two years later, in 2010, an orca killed Dawn Brancheau and competitor Universal Orlando opened The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, accelerating the park's attendance decline. SeaWorld Orlando's 4.77-million visitor mark in 2015 was down nearly 20 percent from its 5.93 million peak in 2008, according to the annual AECOM theme park attendance report. (The 2016 report isn't out yet.)

As a theme park chain unconnected to a movie studio — and the resulting supply of free intellectual property around which to develop attractions with a built-in audience — SeaWorld needs to look outside the United States for new market opportunities as it attempts to find a sustainable niche for itself at home if it wants to reverse the trend and start growing again. Is Zhonghong deal the right next step toward that?

Replies (2)

March 24, 2017 at 2:10 PM · SeaWorld needs to figure out where to take the park as the Orcas are transitioned out. A new buyer shows confidence in the brand.
March 30, 2017 at 11:57 AM · In the long term future, the Chinese will have large stakes in most theme parks and entertainment companies as they need to put their cash sums somewhere. This is an easy way for them to get their feet wet in the US market.

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