Private equity wants Shamu? Blackstone may buy Anheuser-Busch InBev's parks

Shamu, the first female orca ever captured, has been dead for 38 years. Isn't it time the world's most famous performing killer whale got her own wax figure? With private-equity firm Blackstone Group, which owns Madame Tussauds wax museums, reportedly in talks to buy SeaWorld and Busch Gardens parks from brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev (BUD) for up to $3 billion, a Shamu immortalized in wax may no longer be out of the question. If this private-equity deal is completed, it would be the biggest in 2009 and one of the largest since the economic crisis began in 2008, The Wall Street Journal reports.

The takeover could be announced as early as next week, but talks are continuing, and the deal could sink, The New York Times and The Journal say, both citing people familiar with the situation. Calls to both companies seeking comment on Saturday were not immediately returned.
The deal would add to Blackstone's theme park portfolio, which also includes Legoland through Blackstone's stake in Merlin Entertainment Group. Blackstone also owns 50 percent of Universal Orlando theme parks, The Journal says. The other owner is NBC Universal, which is reportedly in acquisition talks with cable giant Comcast (CMSCA).

When Belgium's InBev and U.S.-based Anheuser-Busch completed their $52 billion merger last year, the companies said they would seek to shed some $7 billion in assets, including the maker of Budweiser's entertainment offerings. The merged companies, which together represent the world's biggest beer maker by sales, already sold a South Korean brewery to the buyout firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts for $1.8 billion, The Times reports.

If the theme parks deal goes through, Blackstone would gain 10 amusement parks across the U.S., including SeaWorld parks, which feature the Shamu show named after the long-deceased whale, according to The Journal. The newspaper also said longtime Anheuser-Busch CEO August Busch III had expanded the company's theme parks through acquisitions because he believed having the parks would provide the brewer with insight into consumer behavior.

News of the potential transaction is already making a splash, apparently. The Journal reports that the animal-rights group PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), sent a letter to Blackstone President Hamilton Jones "urging him to transfer all the animals at SeaWorld to coastal sanctuaries." But the paper said Blackstone declined to comment on the letter. As of June 30, 2009, Blackstone's corporate private-equity operation had $25.2 billion of total fee-earning assets under management, according to the company's website.

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