Is Merlin trying to buy Busch Gardens from SeaWorld?

October 4, 2017, 4:51 PM · A Bloomberg News report suggests that theme park operator Merlin Entertainments has made a bid to buy part of the SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment chain.

The assumption is that Merlin is seeking to buy just the Busch Gardens parks, as Merlin's corporate policy does not allow for the keeping of dolphins, whales, and other larger marine mammals as the SeaWorld parks do. But Merlin is in the aquatic animal business, too, as the Sea Life aquariums are among its many holdings in the industry.

According to the TEA/AECOM Theme Index, Merlin Entertainments is the world's second-largest theme park company by attendance, following Disney. In addition to Sea Life, Merlin also owns Legoland, Alton Towers, Thorpe Park, Gardaland, Madame Tussauds, and the London and Orlando Eye attractions.

Both companies have been owned by the private equity from Blackstone in the past. Merlin currently has a market value of about US$6.1 billion, while SeaWorld is valued at $1.3 billion. SeaWorld owns six theme parks: the three SeaWorld parks, in Orlando, San Antonio, and San Diego, the two Busch Gardens parks in Williamsburg, Va. and Tampa, and the Sesame Place park outside of Philadelphia. The company also owns five water parks around the country and Discovery Cove in Orlando.

SeaWorld's parks have been suffering flat to declining attendance since they were spun off from Anheuser Busch in 2009, following the brewer's acquisition by InBev. Earlier this year, China's Zhonghong Group bought 21 percent of the SeaWorld chain.

SeaWorld is licensing the Busch name from InBev and also licenses the Sesame Street characters in a deal that the company recently extended. Would those licenses continue after a sale? Would SeaWorld agree to split the company? How much could SeaWorld get for the two Busch parks and would that be enough to allow it to mount any reasonable challenge to the Universal parks that have pulled away from the SeaWorld parks over the past decade?

Stay tuned for answers.

Replies (9)

October 4, 2017 at 5:53 PM · God I hope not. I’ve had my season passes there since 2000 and they never raise the price if you renew it every year. A new company might be rid of that perk.
October 4, 2017 at 9:24 PM · SeaWorld needs to spin off its Orcas and Dolphins from the park. It’s name hasn’t recovered from Blackfish. It would seem foolish to sell its good properties, but not a good idea to keep using Busch. Keeping them around is a slow delay as the animals dying off continues to be bad publicity. No good options unfortunately. Consider building that huge Orca tank in Orlando and gradually move the Orcas to Orlando over the next 2 decades. The tank itself is billed as the largest ever. When no more Orcas, convert to largest ocean ecosystems like Epcot’s large tank. Maybe sell one Busch park to finance these plans.
October 5, 2017 at 1:24 AM · Although you're right about Merlin's corporate policy on large marine mammals, it hasn't stopped them from buying properties that feature them in the past, then working to phase them out. Gardaland and Chang Feng Ocean World in Shanghai being two examples.

SeaWorld would definitely represent a step beyond those examples though - both in terms of logistics and public relations - so this report makes a lot of sense.

Knowing how Merlin works as a business, I'd actually suggest that the part of the portfolio they'd be most interested in would be Sesame Place - assuming they could work out a transfer of the licence. I can totally see them aggressively expanding that as per their other midway brands.

October 5, 2017 at 5:41 AM · It's a good strategy but I can only see them wanting the tampa park to be their first Alton Towers park in the USA.
October 5, 2017 at 8:31 AM · Merlin is HORRIBLE at running parks. Legoland is horrible. These folks would ruin Bush Gardens.
October 5, 2017 at 10:00 AM · Agree 100% with Ben. Sesame Place is the obvious fit with Merlin's portfolio - Busch Gardens would be bigger than any of their current parks. But that would require obtaining the Sesame Street license - in whole or part - as part of the deal, which potentially complicated things. Who wants a repeat of what Disney and Universal have with Marvel?

As for obtaining SeaWorld and phasing out the whales and dolphins, where would they go? Typically, when parks want to off-load marine mammals, SeaWorld is the refuge of last resort for them. (And do not even start with the ridiculous "sea pen" idea, which is pure legal and technical fiction. Anyone who brings that idea as a serious alternative ought to be immediately dismissed, without hesitation or remorse.) Releasing animals born in captivity into the wild is a death sentence. And neither Merlin nor another company wants the PR blowback from that.

The only path I can see would be through China. Perhaps SeaWorld under Merlin ownership becomes "Sea Life World" (branding synergy and an opportunity for a fresh US PR campaign!), with Zhonghong taking the SeaWorld brand to China, where it builds marine mammal parks that accept all the chain's whales and dolphins.

Otherwise, Merlin just takes the Busch Gardens properties (rebranding them as Merlin Gardens?) and maybe Sesame Place, and the remaining SeaWorld properties continue as something even closer to zoos than amusement parks. Lots of options here.

October 5, 2017 at 1:15 PM · Busch would mirror what they do at Chessington - Zoo and park - so this wouldn't be out of their wheelhouse at all.
October 5, 2017 at 1:18 PM · With Sea World parks Merlin will be a good rival to Universal. Just imagine a Bush Gardens with a LOTR land and a revamped Sea World, with high tech attractions BESIDES the animal attractions.
I don't buy this IP thing. People want good rides, not IPs. Orcas are much more cool than minions, sesame street or Simpsons. But you must do it right!
Build a nice high tech E ticket attraction about Orcas. One in which you dive in the ocean among a group of Orcas, saw them fight and kill a great white shark, and they hunt a blue whale. After that you leave the attraction thrilled and went to see the real Orcas jumping and splashing.
Build a big thank for white sharks, where people could go into the water inside cages, and see the great whites pass by!
Feed piranhas with a nice piece of meat, so the visitors could see their ferocity. Put thrill on Sea World, and you will see that people don't care for IPs that much!!!
October 5, 2017 at 1:26 PM · Great strategic move by Merlin if it comes off. SeaWorld can re-invest some of the money in re-theming its flagship park, enhance Aquatica and Discovery Cove and add a couple of themed hotels. Or Comcast may come in for the I-Drive properties to augment with their existing footprint and completely re-theme SeaWorld to a true Universal park, retaining Aquatica and Discovery Cove. Now that would put Disney on the back foot and hopefully stir them into their long awaited fifth park.

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