23 September 2009 by Jason Garcia - Sentinel Staff Writer
SeaWorld Orlando executives on Wednesday declined to address speculation about a potential sale of the resort or its corporate parent, Busch Entertainment Corp.
With television satellite trucks camped outside the theme park, SeaWorld General Manager Dan Brown told employees at an early-morning staff meeting that he would not discuss what he called "rumors" of a potential sale.
The meeting had become the subject of frenzied speculation after a local television station, citing unidentified "inside sources," reported late Tuesday night that SeaWorld leaders intended to use the forum to tell workers that the resort had been sold. But Brown told employees at the outset of the meeting that he had nothing major to announce.
SeaWorld said the 8 a.m. meeting was never intended to be anything more than a routine staff briefing that touched on subjects such as highlights from the just-concluded summer.
It was the latest chapter in the months-long ownership drama that has enveloped SeaWorld and the rest of Busch Entertainment since the theme-park chain was inherited by Belgian beer giant InBev last year, as part of InBev's $52 billion acquisition of Anheuser-Busch Cos.
Executives at Anheuser-Busch InBev have been shopping the theme parks since the merger closed, part of a strategy to sell off noncore assets and use the money to pay down the debt it incurred in the deal. Busch Entertainment operates 10 theme parks across the U.S., including SeaWorld, Aquatica and Discovery Cove in Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. It has about 7,000 employees in Orlando.
AB InBev declined to discuss the ongoing sale rumors Wednesday. "We will not be able to comment," AB InBev spokeswoman Karen Couck said.
The most likely suitor is widely thought to be the Blackstone Group, the private-equity giant that owns a 50 percent stake in Universal Orlando. AB InBev and Blackstone have held discussions about a possible sale, according to multiple people familiar with the process.
Speculation about Blackstone's interest intensified in recent weeks amid reports that its executives were touring various Busch theme parks and that Blackstone was preparing an initial public offering of its Merlin Entertainments Group, whose holdings include Legoland theme parks, Madame Tussauds wax museums and the London Eye.
Analysts have said Blackstone could make such an IPO more attractive by first acquiring Busch and packaging it with Merlin in the offering, or it could use the proceeds from a Merlin spinoff to help finance a separate Busch purchase.
A spokeswoman for Blackstone declined to comment on the discussions Wednesday.