This week, Disney announced that it's expanding its theme park empire yet again. Just as it did in Hong Kong, the company is going into business with an Asian government (China's) to construct yet another theme park, this time in Shanghai. If everything goes according to plan, Disney will open its sixth theme park resort location in 2014, bringing its total park count to a cool dozen.

But it could be even higher. That's because it's one of the potential bidders for SeaWorld and Busch Gardens, which are being unloaded by their new Belgian owner, InBev. A few weeks ago, Busch Entertainment, which owns the parks, announced it would no longer serve free beer, a longstanding tradition. Many financial observers thought the company made that particularly deluded move this month to make the parks more attractive to a buyer, who wouldn't have to endure the bad P.R. of axing the popular tradition later on.

The Wonderful World of Disney

    Walt Disney Company Chief Executive Robert Iger and wife Willow Bay arrive at The Huffington Post Pre-Inaugural Ball in Washington January 19, 2009. REUTERS/Mitch Dumke (UNITED STATES)

    Reuters

    A farmer fertilizes a field in Chuansha town, where the first Disneyland on the Chinese mainland will be built, in Pudong District of Shanghai January 19, 2009. Shanghai Mayor Han Zheng said that Shanghai and Walt Disney Co. had reached basic agreement on the major issues on construction of a Disneyland theme park in Shanghai, although authority for approval of the project rests with the central government, according to local media. Picture taken January 19, 2009. REUTERS/Stringer (CHINA). CHINA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN CHINA.

    Reuters

    A boy rows a makeshift boat in front of his temporary house in Chuansha town, where the first Disneyland on the Chinese mainland will be built, in Pudong District of Shanghai January 19, 2009. Shanghai Mayor Han Zheng said that Shanghai and Walt Disney Co. had reached basic agreement on the major issues on construction of a Disneyland theme park in Shanghai, although authority for approval of the project rests with the central government, according to local media. Picture taken January 19, 2009. REUTERS/Stringer (CHINA). CHINA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN CHINA.

    Reuters

    Artists from mainland China perform at Hong Kong Disneyland January 15, 2009. Walt Disney Co. intends to submit a plan for a Shanghai theme park, which would be its second resort in China, to Chinese government officials, the company said last week. REUTERS/Bobby Yip (CHINA)

    Reuters

    An installation is displayed at Hong Kong Disneyland January 15, 2009. Walt Disney Co. intends to submit a plan for a Shanghai theme park, which would be its second resort in China, to Chinese government officials, the company said last week. REUTERS/Bobby Yip (CHINA)

    Reuters

    Artists from mainland China perform at Hong Kong Disneyland January 15, 2009. Walt Disney Co. intends to submit a plan for a Shanghai theme park, which would be its second resort in China, to Chinese government officials, the company said last week. REUTERS/Bobby Yip (CHINA)

    Reuters

    Mainland Chinese visitors watch a parade at Hong Kong Disneyland January 15, 2009. Walt Disney Co. intends to submit a plan for a Shanghai theme park, which would be its second resort in China, to Chinese government officials, the company said last week. REUTERS/Bobby Yip (CHINA)

    Reuters

    Characters at Hong Kong Disneyland pose after a parade celebrating the upcoming Year of the Ox January 15, 2009. Walt Disney Co. intends to submit a plan for a Shanghai theme park, which would be its second resort in China, to Chinese government officials, the company said last week. Chinese people all over the world will usher in the Lunar New Year on January 26. REUTERS/Bobby Yip (CHINA)

    Reuters

    Characters at Hong Kong Disneyland greet visitors after a parade celebrating the upcoming Year of the Ox January 15, 2009. Walt Disney Co intends to submit a plan for a Shanghai theme park, which would be its second resort in China, to Chinese government officials, the company said last week. Chinese people all over the world will usher in the Lunar New Year on January 26. REUTERS/Bobby Yip (CHINA)

    Reuters

    Characters at Hong Kong Disneyland pose after a parade celebrating the upcoming Year of the Ox January 15, 2009. Walt Disney Co. intends to submit a plan for a Shanghai theme park, which would be its second resort in China, to Chinese government officials, the company said last week. Chinese people all over the world will usher in the Lunar New Year on January 26. REUTERS/Bobby Yip (CHINA)

    Reuters

If Disney buys SeaWorld and Busch Gardens, it would have a lock on eight of the 10 big theme parks in the Orlando area. It would also mean that The Mouse would own SeaWorld in San Diego, one of its primary competitors in Southern California. In fact, overnight it would go from owning six major American parks to owning 11. When any one company dominates a market, it's called a monopoly.

Back in August, the scuttlebutt was that Busch was starting a rumor that Disney wanted to buy the parks merely as a ruse to inflate the price in a bidding war. But this week, the Financial Times reported that, indeed, Disney is very possibly in the running. So is Universal (which owns two parks in Orlando), but the fiercest competition will probably come from the company that owns Parques Reunidos, a Madrid-based operator of many parks in Europe. Parques Reunidos has a history of buying up all-American properties. It recently purchased the classic Pittsburgh park Kennywood, once of the country's most historic theme parks.

There's a pretty good chance that Disney won't hook Shamu for its theme park empire. First of all, the company has never gobbled up other parks before, not even as passive partners. It's also hard to imagine SeaWorld's straightforward marine enclosures and Busch Gardens' raw coaster thrills being re-branded with Disney's highly stage-managed panache. Six Flags is a more likely contender, and it's also tipped to be a possible bidder, but the 20-park group isn't on the steadiest financial footing these days. Or maybe a few of Disney's competitors will get together to gang up on Walt & Co.

Then again, Disney is one of the only companies big enough to be able to afford the price tag (up to $4.5 billion) of a theme park collection as large and as well-established as Anheuser-Busch's, and the Mouse is famous for being aggressive in doing whatever it can to choke competition wherever it operates. After all, this is the company that rushed its Hollywood Studios to market in order to head off Universal's Florida endeavors, and then built Animal Kingdom in part to compete against SeaWorld and Busch Gardens' animal offerings. But that was the '80s and the '90s. Modern Disney, quaking in its glass slippers over the shrinking economy, may not have the chutzpah to expand.

What would a Disney purchase of SeaWorld and Busch Gardens mean to devotees of Orlando and Anaheim? Hard to say. Having a monopoly may not translate into higher pricing; it would be tough to bleed consumers for more money than $80 for a single day's ticket, which is what Disney does now. Then again, aggressive multiplication by Disney could turn out to be a turning point in amusement parks as an American pastime. It worked for coffee and for hamburgers. Could we be seeing the beginning of a McDisney?

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