Merlin tipped as suitor for Seaworld’s US parks in $1bn deal

Merlin tipped as suitor for Seaworld’s US parks in $1bn deal

Madame Tussauds and Legoland operator Merlin Entertainments is being tipped as a suitor for Seaworld Entertainment’s US theme parks in a deal that could be worth as much as $1 billion.

The company is today reported to have mooted a potential acquisition of Seaworld’s Busch Gardens theme parks in Florida and Virginia, although the US group is thought to be reluctant to consider a break-up.

Merlin’s approach to Seaworld, first reported by Bloomberg, comes after suggestions in recent weeks that the US group has been working with advisers to explore options, including a sale of the company.

The process is said to have elicited interest from other potential suitors.

At Merlin’s interim results in August, Anne-Françoise Nesmes, chief financial officer, was asked by analysts whether the group would be pursuing the matter and confirmed that it could be interested in the Busch Gardens assets.

“It takes two parties to do a deal so we do not know what Seaworld’s intentions are,” she said.

“But we do believe that those assets are interesting and we could certainly do a lot with them, particularly around accommodation, so to us it’s about having the right discussion with a willing partner and making sure we have the right financial return.”

The Busch Gardens sites in Tampa and Virginia are family-focused theme parks with exotic animals as well as rides and live entertainment.

Although Merlin has a chain of Sea Life centres, it has a policy of not keeping whales and dolphins in captivity, which would rule out a bid for the whole of Seaworld.

The US group has three Seaworld-branded parks plus a small number of Aquatica and Water Country attractions.

There has been speculation that Merlin could swallow at least a portion of Seaworld for almost a decade, with both businesses previously owned by private equity firm Blackstone.

Merlin chief executive Nick Varney has made no secret of his interest in the Busch Gardens parks, The Times reported.

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