If you wait around long enough, Blackstone Group (NYSE: BX ) affiliates may soon own all of Florida's theme parks that Disney (NYSE: DIS ) doesn't have nailed down.
Its latest catch is apparently the Cypress Gardens attraction, which closed down in September. Industry watcher Screamscape.com unearthed a few filings on the Polk County website, and it seems that Blackrock's Merlin Entertainments Group has taken over what billed itself as Florida's original theme park.
Sure enough, filings from earlier this week show that Merlin has remedied unpaid taxes on the property and assumed development rights to the now-shuttered attraction.
Remember those Legoland Florida rumors? They're back. Merlin happens to own Legoland, along with several European parks and attractions. Since the rural landscape of Winter Haven, Fla., makes it an unlikely choice for one of Merlin's Madame Tussaud's wax museums, the only logical explanation is that Cypress Gardens will become the East Coast bookend to its Legoland park in Carlsbad, Calif.
Merlin can always just keep the park going in its present form, but that has been a recipe for disaster in the past. Cypress Gardens was one of the state's original roadside attractions, offering lush botanical gardens, relaxing boat rides, and parasol-twirling Southern belles. When that model faltered, a new ownership group tried to win back jaded audiences with carnival rides and a water park. By the time the park closed for good last year, it was down to just the water park and its original garden attractions.
Merlin may very well stick to just the watery diversions. It's opening up an outdoor water park inside its California theme park this summer, and this could be the next building block. In a few years, Merlin may very well follow Great Wolf Resorts (Nasdaq: WOLF ) in opening family-friendly resorts with massive indoor water parks -- Lego-themed, of course.
It may as well approach the Cypress Gardens property with the same tenacity with which Walter Elias Disney tackled orange-grove acreages on both coasts. The park isn't as easily accessible as Central Florida's other I-4-hugging attractions, so Merlin needs to come in with plans for an on-site resort to generate its own traffic. It will need to build up marquee attractions that will make vacationers and locals alike go out of their way to visit. Water slides, colorful carnations, and even the park's legendary waterski team aren't enough.
Thinking big may be a necessity. Back in October, the Financial Times reported that Blackstone wanted to take Merlin public early this year.
Blackstone has amassed an impressive theme-park portfolio. One of its buyout funds acquired the Busch Gardens and Sea World attractions from InBev three months ago. It also owns half of the Universal Orlando resort, with the other half in the process of being handed off from General Electric (NYSE: GE ) to Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA ) in the NBC Universal deal. Now that Six Flags is mired in bankruptcy, and Cedar Fair (NYSE: FUN ) is being acquired by a private-equity firm, Blackstone's Merlin can step up as the pure publicly traded play on regional amusement parks.
Welcome to Florida, Legoland. Show us what you've got.
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