Photographer: Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP Photo

London Eye Owner Sets Its Sights on SeaWorld

  • Merlin Entertainments is said to bid for part of SeaWorld
  • SeaWorld is also said to receive interest from other suitors

Merlin Entertainments Plc has approached SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. about a potential deal, according to people familiar with the matter, as the U.K. theme-park operator seeks to expand overseas to offset a slide in tourists visiting London.

Merlin, which runs the Thorpe Park Resort in southern England and Legoland parks across the world, has made a bid for part of the company, which could be a hurdle as SeaWorld prefers an outright sale, the people said. SeaWorld, which has been working with advisers to explore options including a sale, also received interest from other possible suitors, the people said, asking not to be identified as the details aren’t public.

The offer comes as SeaWorld Chief Executive Officer Joel Manby struggles to stem declines in sales and the stock price of the Orlando-based park owner once famous for its killer whales. For Merlin, a deal by the operator of the London Eye and Madame Tussauds waxworks would mark a continuation of its strategy to expand internationally to cope with a drop in day-trippers to the British capital following terrorist attacks in London and Manchester.

Shares of Orlando, Florida-based SeaWorld rose 4.6 percent in late trading in New York Wednesday. Shares of Merlin were up 1.8 percent at 10:51 a.m. in London Thursday, giving the company a market value of 4.65 billion pounds ($6.14 billion).

Quality Assets

SeaWorld which is currently valued at about $1.3 billion, counts Chinese leisure firm Zhonghong Group as the biggest shareholder, with a 21 percent stake acquired in March from Blackstone Group LP. Zhonghong didn’t respond to an email seeking comment during the Golden Week holiday in China.

Tourists cross the River Thames on Westminster Bridge near the London Eye ferris wheel in central London, U.K., on Thursday, Dec. 29, 2016. Demand for luxury brands in the U.K. is flourishing, boosted by increased tourism and spending linked to the weaker pound. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg
Merlin warned of the threat of terrorism earlier this year when it issued a subdued financial outlook.
Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Representatives for Merlin and SeaWorld declined to comment.

Merlin has a policy of not keeping cetaceans such as whales and dolphins in captivity, which would signal that its interest lies in SeaWorld’s Busch Gardens theme-park assets. Chief Financial Officer Anne-Francoise Nesmes said on Merlin’s earnings call on Aug. 4 that the Busch Gardens parks are “good-quality assets and that we would be interested. But it takes two parties to do a deal.”

The company said in August it expects to meet profit estimates, with two-thirds of revenue coming from outside the U.K. and new attractions opening in China and India.

SeaWorld could raise as much as $1 billion from selling regional parks like Busch Gardens, getting funding to invest in its core aquatic-themed locations, Suntrust analyst Michael Swartz said in August. Busch Gardens has locations in Tampa, Florida, and Williamsburg, Virginia.

More than two years into an attempted turnaround of the company, the shares of the theme park operator have fallen 25 percent this year, amid shrinking attendance and missed earnings forecasts.

The park owner came under fire in the 2013 documentary “Blackfish,” which accused the company of mistreating its killer whales. Under Manby, SeaWorld stopped breeding orcas, created a new show in its San Diego park with animals performing more natural behaviors, and invested in non-animal attractions, such as roller coasters and ocean-themed rides.

Blackstone, the world’s largest buyout firm, took SeaWorld public in 2013 after acquiring it four years earlier for $2.3 billion. Blackstone sold its final block of shares this year, cementing a return of about 2.7 times its original investment. Blackstone also owned Merlin in the past. The private equity firm acquired the entertainment company in 2005, bolstered it with acquisitions, sold a stake to CVC Capital Partners in 2010 and exited its final position in 2015.

— With assistance by Devin Banerjee, and Aaron Kirchfeld

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