It's rumor time, no, we aren't starting a rumor, RD is talking about a huge one we posted about yesterday, that Merlin is interested in buying the Busch parks from SeaWorld if they should become available.
Right now it's a HUGE if, although this mornings earnings call filled in a few of the gaps as the news was bad all around. RD investigates the various options for the Busch parks should they come up for sale.
Written by R.D. Sussman-Dewberry
In the news recently have been several rather important notes about the business that we are all a part of: Theme parks at a crossroads. Indeed, seeing the ouster of the former president of SixFlags Inc for their old head is one of them, as is seeing Joel Manby of SeaWorld Parks (SFP) discussing options for the future of that chain. Right now, theme parks are profitable, with new attractions beginning to be announced for 2018 and beyond, and a good segment in the investment industry to be looking at.... so long as you're buying Disney or Cedar Fair.
Let's take a brief look into what's going on - and why it is going on.
SeaWorld Parks was created during the tumultuous times following the AB-InBev merger in 2010. In essence, the parks were spun off from Anheuser Busch into a separate company in which an ownership group took control, before going public later on. The parks were profitable, growth was good... and then a mockumentary called "Blackfish" was released - a joint effort of PETA and CNN. Being run as pure fact, without the knowledge of SeaWorld Parks, it led to a drop in attendance at the SeaWorld throughout. Later, the mockumentary was rebuked in full as being pretty much fiction - but the damage was done, and PETA was able to put a knife into a great park company. (As an aside: I will forgo my thoughts on PETA and what they did other than to say this: They had a motive, they had a weapon, and they had the means to kill off the chain. )
Since then, the two Busch Gardens parks, the water parks and Sesame Place have all been doing well - in fact, financially supporting the company through these rough times. Though numbers have turned around... they are still lagging the financial success they once had. Joel Manby was brought on board to take the parks in a new direction - and has done so with as much effort as he had shown with his previous employer, Herschend Family Entertainment.
It was announced recently that SWP/Manby had brought in a consultant to look at the future of the company - and the parks therein. Speculation has begun as to the outcome of this, and to the future of the SWP chain. Today it was released that the two Busch Garden parks are now in play - as a spin-off of the SWP company. It would effectively split the company back to the way it was prior to 1986 - before Busch Entertainment Corporation was founded.
So who could bid - and why? Here's my short list.
Cedar Fair: While CF is doing fine financially, to take on the debt of this transaction would be rather extreme. They are now balanced with their finances in check, and showing good numbers profit wise - but at this time it would be taking on another huge chunk of debt to digest in one meal. Financially, it would be rather hard for them to swallow without divesting a park or two along the way.
Merlin: Merlin's financial situation is similar to CF's in terms of debt and equity - but has had a reputation for issues with some parks and the quality of the attractions they have added. Fiscally speaking, they are strong enough to do so - but will have the same financial indigestion afterwards.
Herschend: To me, the most obvious - and best fit - choice for the Busch Gardens Parks. A solid management team from corporate, good financial resources, a mountain of unrestricted cash on hand - and a reputation for quality that is equal to Disney (and in some cases BETTER than Disney). They have been looking to expand for a while, and now have an opportunity to do so with two award-winning parks.
These three companies represent the best possible answers as of right now. Other firms may become involved as well - and depending on the situation, we could even see places we're not familiar with taking a hand in the process.
And as you noticed... SixFlags Inc was left out.
SF Inc is now negotiating financial waters which are at best rocky - and at worst, a storm that will rip that company apart. Financially, the debt situation there is now at a critical mass - with a DDD- credit rating (Basically: Junk bonds) and with a debt to equity ratio that is nearly 4-1 (For every $4.00 of debt, $1.00 is equity/assets) The ouster of their previous president is a VERY ominous sign - and the competition is ramping up their game across the country. Parks like Silver Dollar City (Herschend) in Branson, MO and Knott's Berry Farm (CF) in Buena Park are preparing to add world-class attractions that will invariably draw people away from SF Inc's parks. That level of competition requires an offensive strategy to get people back INTO the SF parks... which too is failing. As of the Q4/Q1 gate totals: Overall attendance is flat - and guest spending is down drastically year over year, despite growth in season pass sales/use. This is a GIANT red flag that there are issues with what people are wanting in the parks - and what they are willing to pay for when there.
At the same time, the strange ownership of SixFlags parks - and the brand therein - may also be in play. The Wynne Trust - who own SFoG & SFoT - as well as the Six Flags name - has become more vocal in the past few months towards their own parks - and the operations therein.
In short: SFInc is closer to their day of reckoning than we've seen since 2005... and their last trip through bankruptcy court. The situation is now becoming very close to that - and is showing signs that to avoid the return that they will have to start shedding assets - and liquidating others - to prevent their financial collapse. While I do not ever see them shutting down (that's foolish folks - you should know better) I do see them looking into their crystal ball - and looking at what assets are performing, which are lagging... and which ones will be sold off. They are now in a place where this is not just an 'if' but rather a 'when' and one that no company should EVER be faced to look at.
In the words of Margo Channing (Look her up, kids...) "Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night." We are right on the edge of some serious shakeups in the theme park game - with some big winners, some big losers - and a hell of a lot of upheaval at the end.
Written by RD Sussman-Dewberry
As I roast here in the deserts of Arizona, and remember summers past, I'm reminded that 1987 brought forth the start of a very wonderful future for me. Not that it was anything special; I was about to start junior high (and all it's 'wonderful' challenges) but also that half my public school was now gone. In a lot of ways, it was a great summer... but one particular event would alter my life forever.
In those days, we didn't take a lot of air-travel vacations (This was tough for an #avgeek like me...) so road trips were the most prevalent way of getting around. In this case, the family decision was made to go to Williamsburg - to Colonial Williamsburg, to Water Country USA, and to Busch Gardens The Old Country. (Yes... it was still called that!)
I will spare you of the details of Colonial Williamsburg - other than I ate a ton, sweat a ton and tried to make paper...poorly. As for Water Country, it was still a much smaller and much more compact place to visit. The park was still in its formative years, and had yet to be acquired by Busch Entertainment Corporation. It was a splashing success, and I still have very fond memories of the park - and the various water slides.
Let's move on friends - to two days at BGW. In 1987, the park was very much the same as it is now - though with a LOT fewer coasters. At the time, Festa Italia was being promoted as their latest addition - with its various attractions of fun and thrills. While staying in the hotel I found one of those 'ticketer' displays with the local attractions in it (you know the one...tourist trap brochure hell) and I picked up one for Busch Gardens. Inside it featured their latest coaster... the Big Bad Wolf. Now mind you good readers this: Pictures are worth a thousand words... and in the coaster world, worth exactly NOTHING. A picture shows the beauty of the ride... but to a smaller than average 12 year old it showed... nothing. Just a train swinging. Nothing big about that, right?
(It should be noted for the record: By now, I'd already ridden my first coasters - though the actual dates/places and order are now long gone due to the lasting effects of Multiple Sclerosis.)
And so we went to The Old Country. For me, BGW has been a part of my life since 1978 - though again, those memories are long faded, I remember the park fondly in so many ways. The smell as you enter the park via Banbury Cross; the smell of the grass & mulch going into Hastings (Shut up. I know it's Ireland now. It's my story dammit, and it's still Hastings in 1987.) and the wafting smell of the nearby brewery tour flowing into the park. Loch Ness Monster stood her ground as she does now, looking over her kingdom and all her disciples living in it. We made our way around the park through France, into Ocktoberfest... and there it was.
Big Bad Wolf
Now all I'd seen at this point was the brake run... and the turning trains leaving the platform... and NOTHING ELSE. I didn't know of what it was, or who made it, or how it was developed... only that it was some sort of swinging ride. The station, dressed in Bavarian style, did not show much for the ride itself. As I entered the queue at the base of the station, the pre-show screens played a pre-ride sizzler reel, narrated by none other than Vincent Price. I could hear screams...but did not yet see my fate at hand.
The wait was not excessive - maybe 15 minutes or less - and the funky hanging trains with the glowing red eyes slid into the station - and the trains unloaded. All I can remember of this point was the restraint being ginormous compared to me, and that I wondered why it would need something that big... after all, it's just a swinging ride, right?
Within a few seconds, the station's horn blasted out words that to this day are memorable - and distinctive to me:
"Sit back, relax. HOLD ON TIGHT. Enjoy traveling at the SPEED OF FRIGHT on the BIG... BAD... WOLF."
Followed by the sounds of the brakes releasing, and the train advancing out of the platform. Now mind you, I'd yet to ride anything like this. But it was something truly special to me in so many ways - a first of my kind. And it really wasn't all that bad, I mean, so far just a little swaying as the train moved forward....
"CLANK CLANK CLANK.....clonkuppa clonkuppa clonkuppa clonkuppa clonkuppa" and the train began to advance up the lift hill slowly...and it is at this point I realize... this isn't QUITE what I bargained before. Looking to the left side, I could see the helix and the village below... and just a hint of the second lift in the background. And in a few seconds time... "CLONK CLONKCLONK..." and the train slid off the chain and swept into the village below.
Now those of you who know me, or know of my reading, know that I have a very 'salty' mouth. I'm not afraid to drop a word, phrase or combination into normal conversation; in fact, I'm rather known for it. But at the ripe age of 12, there was only one word I could really use to describe my total and complete terror at the time...
(Unlike Ralphie... I simply blared it out.)
To me, the first bit of the ride was like being stuck in a broken movie projector... flickering of light, images & scenery as it flew by me. There was no detail, other than the train zipping around the course like a pissed off pit bull with a rag doll in its mouth. The Big Bad Wolf was real.. and was he ANGRY! We shot through the helix and up to the base of the second lift, only slowing as the chain grabbed the last car of the train
(It should be noted: From my memory, the brakes at the base of the lift that later slowed the trains to a crawl only slowed the train to the pace of the lift.)
As the train ascended lift two, I could only imagine what was about to happen to me. And oh did I realize that in my near future I was going into the water...As the train reached the top of lift 2, the slow, soft turn to the left revealed the insanely steep second drop down to the river below... at blinding speed. I could feel the water hit the train as we bottomed out (OK, OK... it was the 'misters' that created 'Wolf's breath' but when you're scared shitless going at light speed on an unknown ride, you hit the water.. REALLY!) and then the feeling of being ripped up and around the hill back up towards the brakes.
I was <WHITE> (The only other time I was that white was my one ride on Lightning Rod. Ask Randy if you don't believe me.)
As the train hustled into the brakes, I recall feeling VERY queasy... and dizzy. I headed up the stairs, where my Mom was waiting at the base of the exit, next to the bushes.
My comment: "That was INTENSE." followed by.....
Yes, my wonderful readers... I lost the contents of my stomach. In the bush (It never did grow back) and in full view of the exiting riders. The rest of the day was spent on more 'family' attractions that my height would allow - but something was nagging me in the back of my mind. Should I conquer it again?
The second day we were at the park, I thought about it. Then I thought about it again... and again... and yet: I never rode it a second time that trip. But something about Big Bad Wolf would still be a part of me - for reasons I didn't quite know.
June is Pride Month, and we've never hidden our support for equal rights for everybody. Sure, we are a theme park and travel site but we are also members of many different communities that converge, and the LGBTQ communities is one community we've never hidden our support for.
So as we change our profile picture to "Pride Journey" we sadly got some push-back. R.D. is here with one of his amazing articles and has some thoughts on it.
Written by RD Sussman-Dewberry
It is June in America, and that usually signifies wedding season is in full swing, parks are in daily operation, and that rainbow flags begin to appear all over the place. June is typically thought of as the Gay Pride Month, in deference to the Stonewall Riots in New York City that began a major push forward for equality and equal rights for the gay community. While Stonewall and other events of the 60s were the start, we adopted so much as a group to make it a time to celebrate and to remember our past - and to hope for a better future.
I grew up as a kid in the 70s and 80s. For me, coming out was a tough (and very long) process that started in 1990, and still goes forward to this day. I chose to be who I was from a late teen on, and I am thankful that I did find an outlet of people who welcomed me in as one of their own: The coaster community.
If you go to any given theme park event with a coaster group, look around you. There are gay people. And LOTS of them. You cannot attend a major coaster event and not find gay people. Theme parks, roller coasters = gays. It's been that way for decades now. And thankfully, with only a very rare few exceptions, we find that gays are accepted - and are treated as equals. And this is a great thing in so many ways, as we don't have to stop being who we are to ride a coaster. Or to enjoy a flat ride. Or to ride the log flume (No jokes, please...).
Walt Disney World Gay Days
One of the things that has amazed me though is there is, despite this very common population, a handful of people who don't get it. Who are clueless to what is going on around them, and to the people they are interacting with. And they do not realize that there are a LOT of gay people around them.
And you know what? It makes them sound like jackasses.
As I write this, I have seen a beautiful sense of support for Park Journey when we changed our logo to be a rainbow - to support the gay community, and the gay coaster enthusiasts. Many people have supported us. And while I'm one of two gay people on staff, it is beautiful to me to see my fellow PJ team members support us. And to support the gay community who form a part of our world.
I don't ever expect everybody to agree with me, or with anybody. That's just plain rude. And I never want people to assume that they have to agree with gay politics, gay movements, whatever. We're in the United States, we're together as a nation, and we're big and diverse with different opinions. At the same time, I do hope that people will understand this: If you don't like a person's opinion, you are entitled to do so - up to the point where you insult them, their group, their family or their beliefs. That shows disrespect - and a tremendous amount of disrespect - to others. That's not tolerance - it's ignorance.
I want everybody - no matter who they are or how they believe to be able to say their opinions - in a polite, dignified way. I love to see other people's opinions and to think in their shoes. But I ABHORE anybody who refuses to listen to the other side. Respect is a two way street.
To my gay family out there - enjoy this time for us to remember our past and celebrate for our future. To my supportive family, thank you for being there for me. And to everybody else - have a beautiful and wonderful June.