Blackstone Group Nears Theme Park Deal

PHILADELPHIA/NEW YORK (Reuters) – Private equity firm Blackstone Group (BX.N) is in talks to buy Anheuser-Busch InBev NV’s (ABI.BR) theme parks, and a deal could be reached as early as next week, sources familiar with the situation said on Friday.

The deal, which hasn’t been signed and could fall apart, might fetch roughly $2.5 billion to $3 billion, said one of the sources, who declined to be named because they were not authorized to speak with the media.

The estimated price was within the range at which analysts valued the park chain last year when InBev acquired Anheuser-Busch.

If finalized, it would mark the largest U.S. private equity deal so far this year at a time when activity among financial sponsors has begun to revive.

AB InBev and Blackstone declined to comment.

The 10 amusement parks, which include Sea World, Busch Gardens and Sesame Place, have long been slated to be sold as part of InBev’s plans to pay for its 2008 acquisition of Anheuser-Busch.

The brewer’s parks ranked as the No. 5 global theme park chain as ranked by annual attendance, according to a 2007 report by Themed Entertainment Association/Economic Research Associates. It drew more than 22 million customers in 2007, the most recent year in which data was available.

The deal would add to Blackstone’s existing amusement assets, which include Merlin Entertainment Group, the owner of Madame Tussauds wax museums, Legoland and the London Eye Ferris wheel. The private equity firm also holds a 50 percent stake in Universal Orlando theme parks.

Rival theme park operators include Walt Disney Co (DIS.N), General Electric Co’s (GE.N) Universal Studios, Six Flags Inc and Cedar Fair LP (FUN.N). Six Flags, which operates 20 parks in North America, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in June.

Theme parks have been hurt during the recession as families curb spending habits. (Reporting by Jessica Hall and Megan Davies; Editing Bernard Orr)