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One of the top stories Monday was the announced sale of Anheuser-Busch, the brewery giant and owner of the SeaWorld parks, to Belgian brewer InBev. This comes despite an acrimonious first offer for the American company, with fractious fighting between the boards of directors at both conglomerates, and the promise of a presumably lengthy battle for control. The final purchase price was $5/share higher than the first offer, culminating in a $50 billion deal to create the world's single largest beer company.

Anheuser-Busch, of course, created and maintains the SeaWorld parks (San Diego, San Antonio, Orlando) and the Busch Gardens parks (Williamsburg, Tampa), as well as boutique parks in Orlando (the Aquatica water park and the intimate but expensive dolphin encounter Discovery Cove). The company plans to build a mega-complex in Dubai with UAE-develeper Nakheel, in which all four park types would again be duplicated on a single man-made island.

The $50 billion dollar question on my mind is not whether the beer sold in America will be less watered down in the future (have you tasted the "Budweiser" brand as sold in Europe? It's completely different!), but what will become of the theme parks owned by Anheuser-Busch, and by extension, what all of that will mean downstream for Walt Disney World (WDW).

Busch Gardens Europe (Williamsburg), seen by many as America's most beautiful park.

I think we can rule out the extremes entirely. It would be highly implausible for this beverage company to have sought the purchase of another beverage company just so it could get its hands on the highly-desirable Orlando theme park market. InBev probably isn't in this for the theme parks. It's a beer company, so it presumably wants Anheuser-Busch for the beer business. Thus, it's unlikely they will want to keep operating the parks themselves. It's also pretty unlikely, darn near impossible, they would just shutter the parks as though they were money-losing divisions. Surely there's a sale price, and it's probably in the billions.

Thus, look for InBev to start actively scouting for a buyer. And yet, who would be interested? Who would have the requisite billions to pull it off? Those are separate questions. I can think of a ton of organizations that would have the interest. Busch parks have always had a strong component of conservation in their message - it's almost over the top sometimes - so I could imagine that conservation companies might care a lot. Yet I can't think of one that has the necessary money.

There are certainly some rich businesses out there. But does Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett's investment company, want to own theme parks? Should we hope for a future of orcas and sea lions as presented by Microsoft? Could we even picture the "conservation theme parks" if they were bought out by the likes of Exxon Mobil? Don't laugh too hard… British Petroleum now says that BP stands for "Beyond Petroleum" and its print advertising of late is dominated by green forests and pristine landscapes, so nothing is impossible. And the big oil companies are some of the few corporations around right now that are swimming in money. The money needed would be almost a rounding error in their quarterly balance sheets, and could provide diversification and a much-needed P.R. boost.

Come feed the animals!

The economy, you see, is the real problem. If you look at who owns theme parks, you've mostly got movie studio conglomerates: Walt Disney, Warner Brothers, Universal, and formerly Paramount.

Intriguingly, there are a couple of non-studios out there who like to run theme parks, most specifically Cedar Fair, which operates Cedar Point and Knott's Berry Farm. I have to believe they would be interested, especially because of a little tidbit I ran into about two years ago but never published: reportedly, Cedar Fair was looking to buy land (maybe even had bought land) in the mega-theme-park size, down on west US-192. To give you an idea of where that is, draw a line from SeaWorld to Walt Disney World and extend that line beyond WDW a few miles.

Now I haven't heard anything further from this rumor, and Cedar Fair hasn't exactly been setting the typewriters humming lately with important news. But if the rumor was true, then I imagine Cedar Fair would have the interest. But do they have the money? Not without a crushing burden of debt, I would think. And the culture clash would be simply gigantic. Cedar Fair runs roller-coaster parks. I have no qualms about baldly stating the obvious: they have ruined Knott's Berry Farm, which went from a quaint and well-themed, immersive environment to a soulless collection of thrill rides. Theming and atmosphere has been recklessly tossed aside since Cedar Fair moved in. It only takes a little imagination to consider what might be in store for the conservation message of SeaWorld, and for that matter, what the animals would be treated like in general.

Kraken in Orlando is thrilling, but younger family members (and probably
a few of the older ones) can't ride.

You've got Six Flags, which has essentially no money and thus probably not a serious candidate. How about Merlin Entertainment, which runs Legoland and Madame Tussauds? Their interest is probably there, but they'd be making a pretty big jump here in terms of visibility. It would be like moving from the bush leagues into the Big Leagues all in one fell swoop. Not to say it can't be done, but Merlin is a different class at the moment. Normally speaking, I would guess that someone else, from a different background, would be a better fit, because they'd have deeper pockets.

The more obvious candidates are still the movie and TV studios. Are there any left who don't have parks? DreamWorks is an obvious answer, and their movies are so animal-based that the fit might be right. But DreamWorks is part of Viacom, as is Paramount. And remember that Paramount has gotten out of the park business. My guess is that Viacom CEO Sumner Redstone might not want a repeat. Despite being worth some $9 billion himself, Redstone may not want the debt load on Viacom that SeaWorld would bring.

There's Sony, which operates Columbia pictures and MGM. That would be a hilarious outcome, if the MGM name migrated from WDW over to SeaWorld in the span of twelve months! But it would also be a tempting place for Sony to meddle with the formula. They've bet big on the Playstation 3 in recent years, and so far haven't made much (or any!) money from it, which leads me to wonder if there would be PS3 tie-ins all over SeaWorld and Busch parks. Not a pleasant thought.

Atlantis in San Diego. Would it translate to a video game?

Of the big studios, that leaves just Fox. Hm. Didn't Fox distribute all of the Star Wars movies? I'm not one to want Star Wars everywhere in the theme park universe, so I wouldn't be happy if Shamu Stadium were transformed into orca pod racing (yes, that horrible pun was intentional; we are making a Phantom Menace reference here, so I figure all bets about good taste are off anyway). But Fox has a relationship with Lucas, who must surely be able to work some magic still? (Well, maybe not, depending on who you ask).

Hm, that notion of "magic" might be more relevant than we'd thought. What if a buyer - any buyer at all - wanted the SeaWorld and Busch parks as a way to diversify in this economy, and provide a steady stream of income? What if the parks could be allowed to continue their identity (sans the beer, probably) and keep their culture? What if, in other words, some insurance company or travel company or research group bought the place but kept their name out of it, deliberately NOT looking for synergy but instead for diversification and income? If so, they would need talented managers and designers to help run the place, and provide the expertise.

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© 2008 Kevin Yee

A Different look at Disney...
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