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The money will keep coming in for Six Flags (OTC BB: SIXF.OB), as its turnstiles continue to click. The same can't be said for its common shareholders, after the regional amusement-park chain filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization over the weekend.
Not that investors should feel blindsided. The company has $2.3 billion in debt and had been delaying interest payments, as it tried to persuade its creditors to swap debt for equity. The stock was delisted from the New York Stock Exchange two months ago.
Six Flags generated $144 million in operating profits last year, a dramatic improvement over its 2007 performance. It was able to grow attendance and revenue per patron, while trimming away at its operating costs. However, even $144 million isn't enough to cover the $176.2 million in interest expense incurred as a result of the company's tragic mountain of debt.
Yes, Cedar Fair (NYSE: FUN ) has been able to turn a profit with a similar debt load. But Six Flags faces a long road ahead, even though its financial performance has been improving. Even selling off smaller parks didn't make a material dent in the company's borrowings. Now it will hope to re-emerge as a stronger player with a cleaner balance sheet.
The timing of its bankruptcy filing definitely stinks. Just as consumers, fearing the worst, may flock to Ford (NYSE: F ) cars during the General Motors bankruptcy, Six Flags has to be careful that it doesn't lose potential patrons to Cedar Fair, Disney (NYSE: DIS ) , or Blackstone Group (NYSE: BX ) parks. Since it's a regional amusement park with mostly local customers, the competition's parks aren't necessarily nearby. Still, the individual parks may suffer a slowdown in season pass sales, and maybe even group sales, as a result of thrill-seeking consumers who don't know the difference between Chapter 7 and Chapter 11 bankruptcies.
In short, this would have gone down a lot easier if it had taken place after the telltale summer season. Another year of improvement may have even won over some of the creditors without the likely wipeout of its common-stock investors. Unfortunately, there's not a lot of flexibility when you can't pay the bills.
Other ways to throw up your hands and enjoy the ride: