Rumor SPOTLIGHT for July 16, 2014: What if Universal buys SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment?

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In case you missed the news last week, we’ve recently been hearing that Universal owner Comcast might want to buy SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment (which includes Busch Gardens and other parks across the U.S.).

It isn’t nearly as farfetched as it might seem on first blush; Comcast, as noted in last week’s Rumor Round-Up, has suddenly found itself inebriated with the themed industry, more than willing to drop half a billion dollars a year on upgrades and expansions for its American properties while also currently in the process of constructing locations in Beijing and Moscow and, just possibly, Dubai, South Korea, and India. It’s on a single-minded crusade to topple industry leader (and creator) Disney from its high horse and drag it into a knock-down, drag-out fight in the mud.

Universal - SeaWorld - Busch Gardens
Universal – SeaWorld – Busch Gardens

And for SeaWorld owner Blackstone Group, an investment firm whose sole interest and purpose in theme parks is to turn a tidy profit, the only question isn’t whether they would sell one of the biggest chains in the country, it’s for how much. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect alignment of the stars for such a transaction to happen, despite the fact that NBCUniversal was already at this particular juncture once before (some six years previously, when SeaWorld Entertainment was being auctioned off and before Blackstone ended up being the highest bidder).

Let’s say Comcast is successful and all of SeaWorld’s holdings get folded into the growing Universal Studios empire. Would the theme park industry look drastically different the very next day? In a word, yes. Beyond SeaWorld Orlando, Aquatica Orlando, and Discovery Cove being immediately rendered part of Universal Orlando Resort, there’s actually quite a few ramifications that would play out around the world, as well.

 

Just what does SeaWorld own, anyway?

Before our imaginations can run away with us, it’s important to first stop and take stock of the situation.

Many are probably not aware of the full extent of SeaWorld’s locations nationwide – the company actually owns more than twice as many parks as Universal does globally, with plans to move into the international market itself. In fact, there are more SeaWorld locations in the US than Disney and Universal possessions combined, running the gamut from marine to amusement to water to kiddie parks – in short, just as wide a spectrum as Disney’s continental portfolio.

Main parks:

  • Busch Gardens Tampa (opened in 1959)
  • SeaWorld San Diego (1964)
  • SeaWorld Orlando (1973)
  • Busch Gardens Williamsburg (1975)
  • SeaWorld San Antonio (1988)

Water parks:

  • Adventure Island (sister park to Busch Gardens Tampa) (1980)
  • Water Country USA (sister park to Busch Gardens Williamsburg) (1984)
  • Aquatica Orlando (sister park to SeaWorld Orlando) (2008)
  • Aquatica San Antonio (sister park to SeaWorld San Antonio) (2012)
  • Aquatica San Diego (sister park to SeaWorld San Diego) (2013)

Miscellaneous parks:

  • Discovery Cove (based upon animal interactions) (2000)
  • Sesame Place (based upon Sesame Street) (1980)

 

Orlando = Universal’s turf

Right away, without having to lift a single finger (well, after writing that initial check, of course), Universal would own six parks within Orlando: Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure, Wet ‘n Wild Orlando, SeaWorld Orlando, Discovery Cove, and Aquatica Orlando (with a seventh, Busch Gardens, just a stop or two over in Tampa).

This instantly puts the company at a numerical parity with Walt Disney World’s four theme and two water parks, and, what’s more, gives it nearly the same exact spread of properties, from a fake film backlot to a park featuring zoological elements. One of the few remaining strengths that Disney would enjoy would be the convenience of having all of its parks situated in one location.

But, even here, there are ways for Universal to countermand its rival’s supremacy. Word has already leaked of a possible monorail that would connect all of Universal Orlando’s hotels and theme parks with the “second site” that is Wet ‘n Wild, emulating Disney World’s world-renowned transportation system (as much as it can, of course). And while having the theoretical monorail swing all the way down to include SeaWorld Orlando on its route may be borderline impossible – imagine trying to negotiate that deal with all those myriad land owners – there is still the standard shuttle solution that Wet ‘n Wild currently employs, with, perhaps, the added possibility of going all-out in theming and design (triple-decker Knight Busses would be my ideal ride, but mobile Frankenstein’s labs would probably have to suffice, given J.K. Rowling’s infamous rigidity).

 

The future

Most interesting of all in this hypothetical scenario is how it makes Universal come full circle with its original plans for Orlando.

Back in the ‘90s, as the company was putting the finishing touches on its Universal Orlando Resort, it was so taken with the idea of becoming a multi-day vacation destination, it not only was eyeing a huge swath of land near the Orange County Convention Center (a huge market that I-Drive 360 is now looking to tap), it had already started to purchase it, reaching some 2,000 acres – over twice the size of Universal Orlando proper. Initial plans called for a third and a fourth theme park to be situated here, along with a second, bigger CityWalk shopping/dining/entertainment complex, loads of hotels and/or time-share units, and, even, two 18-hole golf courses.

Orange County Convention Center
SeaWorld, Aquatica, and Discovery Cove aren’t too far from the Convention Center (located up top).

This third site, of course, wasn’t meant to be; it turns out that before Harry Potter arrived on the scene, neither Islands of Adventure nor CityWalk was anywhere near as popular or profitable as the company had initially hoped, forcing it to first sit on and then ultimately sell all of its additional land.

Before word broke of Comcast looking to purchase SeaWorld, the vaguest of rumors were starting to swirl that the company was tinkering with the notion of resurrecting the old Universal plans and building a third gate, at the very least, somewhere off-property. It very well could be that SeaWorld’s Orlando holdings would be enough to stand in for this long-lost business plan – or it just might be that this wouldn’t be enough to scratch Comcast’s construction itch, and it would still proceed with both the third theme park and that new water park we keep hearing about.

If this, indeed, would be the case, it’s hard to see how the scale wouldn’t tilt in Universal’s favor.

 

A resurgent presence overseas

While both Universal Studios Japan and Singapore have footprints that are too small to accommodate any SeaWorld-fueled expansions (both parks sit on plots of land that are only about 50 acres in size), there certainly is the possibility to incorporate Shamu and friends in new attractions or, possibly, new theme park lands. This is particularly true for Singapore, which still has a Madagascar-themed area, even after Universal and DreamWorks have broken off their contract and the latter is looking to make its own standalone parks around the world.

The most exciting prospect, then, lies with the two locations that have been indefinitely delayed since the Great Recession hit in 2008 and defeated many a business venture. Universal Studios South Korea was originally conceived of as the only full-fledged resort outside of Orlando, with a theme and water park situated side-by-side – how hard is it to imagine that water park becoming another Aquatica?

Universal-Studios-Korea
The original concept art for Universal Studios South Korea.

And in Dubai, both Universal and SeaWorld had originally inked deals before being forced to pull the plug, and both companies have expressed renewed interest in picking construction back up. SeaWorld, in particular, had quite the impressive plan, with four parks being situated in a Disney World-esque lineup: SeaWorld, Aquatica, Busch Gardens, and the world’s first Discovery Cove clone. All that’s missing is an Universal Studios park.

Disney’s own holdings in Europe and China have had rocky beginnings, at the very least, and continued underwhelming performances, at the very most, leaving the door wide open for real competition in giant swaths of the planet – which would, in turn, crank up the heat here in Orlando for the best rides, biggest attractions, and, now, the most complete array of possible experiences.

It would be one of the best conceivable scenarios that the themed industry has ever seen in its entire history.

 

We’re moving to Tuesdays

Greetings, rumor fans. Dan here, stopping by to let you know that our weekly rumor articles are moving to a new day and time: Tuesday afternoons. I know, today is Wednesday, so this article is coming up one day off – but it’s helping us make the transition from Fridays to Tuesdays. Next week, look for our latest rumor post on Tuesday!

 

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klschams
klschams
July 16, 2014 2:59 pm

I hope they do not buy Sea World.  I would have to stop going to Universal.  I BAN Sea World and all of their partners.

BGTFansOnline
BGTFansOnline
July 16, 2014 4:16 pm

It’s important to remember that at this point, Blackstone only owns about 30% of the SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment shares, so Comcast buying Blackstone (or even just buying out its shares in SEAS) does not automatically mean Uni owns SEAS.

ulrika
ulrika
July 16, 2014 6:58 pm

We want a universal park in scandinavia too

Rhiannon Mauck
Rhiannon Mauck
July 16, 2014 2:47 pm

With Sea World under so much fire over their alleged mistreatment of the orca’s, I don’t know if this is a good idea. :-/

OrlandoInformer.com
OrlandoInformer.com
July 16, 2014 2:52 pm

Rhiannon Mauck – I’m not making a judgement call one way or the other, all I will say is that, as someone who works inside Orlando’s tourism industry daily, I virtually never hear about Blackfish anymore. I don’t like using the word “buzz” all that much in this context, but really, all the buzz about Blackfish went away once it wasn’t nominated for an Oscar. Well, that an SeaWorld’s renewed efforts to defend its practices seem to be helping (SeaWorldCares.com).

Amy Giudice
Amy Giudice
July 16, 2014 2:54 pm

Iam sorry but that blackfish movie was a joke and def didnt stop people from.visting any seaworld parks or water parks…

Deedee Herring
Deedee Herring
July 16, 2014 2:56 pm

Really doubt this move would dethrone Disney. Comcast would need to do a lot of work to sea world alone. Including gaining back fans for the sea world parks.

Jennifer Fessler
Jennifer Fessler
July 16, 2014 2:56 pm

There is already a pass that allows you to go to both Universal parks, Busch Gardens Tampa, Seaworld, and Wet and Wild with an Aquatica add on. It is great and a real bargain compared to Disney.

Steven Cronin
Steven Cronin
July 16, 2014 2:57 pm

The multiple park ticket already exists with the Orlando flex ticket . These parks already have a strong history of working together. All the signs point to a deal that may have been years in the making. This would change the face of the theme park industry in Orlando!

Susan Wardle
Susan Wardle
July 16, 2014 3:04 pm

It’s going to happen… Disney will always be in the heart and bring out the child in us all, bu t Universal is taking over the thrill.

Sheena Marie Bittner
Sheena Marie Bittner
July 16, 2014 3:09 pm

Disney will always be top! They just do things better

Annette Conway
Annette Conway
July 16, 2014 3:10 pm

Love Disney, love SeaWorld and love HP at Universal. If it wasn’t for HP I wouldn’t go to Universal. I tend to tailor my holiday to what parks I want to go to and not who owns them.

Jim Cunningham
Jim Cunningham
July 16, 2014 3:14 pm

Unless of course you’re listening to the ‘buzz’ from California, where it is still being pushed ahead. The campaign is in it’s final stages with the state government and if it passes, then big changes will HAVE to happen at San Diego. And if California passes it, it will be hard for Florida or Texas to resist. As a #Blackfish supporter, I don’t want to see Seaworld disappear. But they need to change. I’ve been to SeaWorld Orlando twice. The first time, I admit I was caught up in the Disney effect. The second time tho, the experience was different.… Read more »

Jim Cunningham
Jim Cunningham
July 16, 2014 3:16 pm

It certainly had some impact. How large an impact, well, SeaWorld doesn’t break their attendance numbers down to that degree.
But the drop in footfall and revenue was quite large last year.
If I can find the article of park admissions and their changes in the last year (covers Seaworld, Disney, Universal and others around the world too) I’ll post a link.

Brandy Chandler
Brandy Chandler
July 16, 2014 3:22 pm

Bummer rumor reports are moving to Tuesdays. I always looked forward to them on Fridays and thought today was a one off extra report or something. Now to look forward to Tuesdays I guess. 🙂

Sarah Alleah
Sarah Alleah
July 16, 2014 3:35 pm

I’m okay with this. We go to SeaWorld, Aquatica and the Universal parks while down there. It really wouldn’t change my plans any 🙂

Dan Walker
Dan Walker
July 16, 2014 3:40 pm

I believe we need to keep this as simple as possible. This is NOT an article about who is better (Disney or Universal) and it’s not about a new theme park ride or attraction. This article is about a rumor. Not to make light of the Blackfish movie…let’s not forget about the fact that trainers have died here. I’m on the fence about SeaWorld. But let’s look past that whole controversy for a moment. Even if Universal Orlando and their parent company does make this acquisition it would instantly make them an even closer competitor to Disney. Whether you are… Read more »

David Dollar
David Dollar
July 16, 2014 3:53 pm

As a Disney Travel planner, in the many many vacations I’ve planned, I’ve never had anyone want to spend more than a day at Universal. Everyone sees Disney as a vacation spot, and Universal as a day trip. If this merge were to happen, it would be the best thing to rid the Blackfish label–UOR could tout new management and make all changes needed. Also, with Disney having not yet used 40% of the land they own, they have decades of growth ahead–something like this is the only way that Universal can really expand…

Bruce S Benzing
Bruce S Benzing
July 16, 2014 4:09 pm

Aquatica might be the only thing worthwhile in this acquisition. I liked Flight of the Manta but overall Seaworld is a waste of time.

Terry Lockhart
Terry Lockhart
July 16, 2014 4:12 pm

I see the competition between Disney and Universal has healthy for both companies. Let them compete! The winner will be the tourist and the economy!
A win win!

Kyle Patrick Kirkland
Kyle Patrick Kirkland
July 16, 2014 4:15 pm

Ok.. No one will topple Disney. Period. Thats the reason Universal Studios even cane here was to ride on Disneys shirttails. I like Universal, dont get me wrong. But its no Walt Disney World.

Bridget Sullivan
Bridget Sullivan
July 16, 2014 5:18 pm

If universal buys SeaWorld what will happen to all the rescue efforts they do and all the animals. Most of them were born there.

Kirsten Diane Jones
Kirsten Diane Jones
July 16, 2014 5:33 pm

They can’t topple disney. I love universal but no way is that happening. The workers aren’t as nice as Disney’s are.

Jack Smith
Jack Smith
July 16, 2014 5:48 pm

Couldn’t have said it better myself! Disney is the hot spot and Universal is the day trip in my opinion.

Carrie Kuyper
Carrie Kuyper
July 16, 2014 6:02 pm

Hope not….the seaworld in ohio was bought by six flags here and only lasted like a year because they just could not keep up the level and quality of the franchise before. Insiders tip from ohio seaworld, the sealion show trainers visited the orlando employees to teach them how to improve there show…that’s how good it was in ohio. Miss our park, even though it was small.

Angel Nicole
Angel Nicole
July 16, 2014 6:14 pm

Disney may have nice theming and mostly nice employees, but just going to Magic kingdom recently, the rides aren’t as thrilling as an adult the way they were as a kid. Not as much catering to the older audiences the way universal or SeaWorld tries to give the right balance between the age groups. Not that Disney is bad, it’s cute, but just doesn’t give as much thrill when you are older.

Brandon Bluejacket-Herring
Brandon Bluejacket-Herring
July 16, 2014 6:34 pm

That’s where you are wrong sir. That extra land you quoted technically cannot be built on for the most part because of their agreement of land preserves for animals. For every development Disney does, they have to set aside a certain amount for this purpose.

Brandon Bluejacket-Herring
Brandon Bluejacket-Herring
July 16, 2014 6:35 pm

Actually I’ve been treated ten times better at universal than at Disney in the most recent years. They’ve stepped up their game in guest service.

Dustin Philebar
Dustin Philebar
July 16, 2014 6:42 pm

Disney is for kids. That’s all. Universal has multiple ride for kids and adults! I go every year and we use to go to every park but now it just two and that’s it! Universal adds new stuff Disney take years to do so!

David Dollar
David Dollar
July 16, 2014 6:53 pm

Yep, they have stated they are going to preserve 30-35% of their land, keeping it untouched. Meaning if they have used 40%, and are keeping 35% untouched, that’s 30% that can be used for other things. So that’s where I’m right, sir. =)

David Dollar
David Dollar
July 16, 2014 6:54 pm

(and what they have used is under 40… I want to say its about 35%, but i said 40 just to be on the safe side. they have room for two more theme parks to comfortably fit if they wanted to do that… room that Universal doesnt have)

Angel Nicole
Angel Nicole
July 16, 2014 7:14 pm

Universal actually acquired more land around I-drive.

John Truro
John Truro
July 16, 2014 8:10 pm

I will gladly say that my family and I spend way more days at Universal than at Disney but that is mainly because Universal has IMO better rides and is easier to get around. On a side note, I heard that Universal had bought at least 50 more acres of land.

David Lieberman
David Lieberman
July 16, 2014 8:21 pm

I don’t think it’s going to make much of a difference to consumers if Sea World and Universal are owned by the same company. They already offer a CityPass or whatever it’s called that is a ticket to all Sea World and Universal parks for a week or two, so they are already partnering in that way. It might allow for some behind the scenes or marketing efficiencies, but other than that I think it will either just make a single company more profitable, or being a bigger cost and liability for Unviersal carrying those Sea World parks around the… Read more »

SamFuller
SamFuller
July 16, 2014 10:05 pm

But what about in terms of visitors? In Orlando alone, Disney parks had over 50 million visitors in 2013. Universal Orlando and Islands of Adventure on the other hand had a total of a little over 15 million. Even if you add SeaWorld Orlando (which rounds off the top 10 most visited parks in the US) the total is around 20.3 million visitors. If you factor in the entire world, 9 out of the top 10 visited theme parks are Disney parks with a total of over 116 million people visiting! The only Universal property to break the top 10… Read more »

Roxanne DeJean Romero
Roxanne DeJean Romero
July 16, 2014 9:31 pm

I do prefer Universal but Magic Kingdom is a must see.

Melissa McLaughlin
Melissa McLaughlin
July 16, 2014 9:59 pm

Universal is not just a day trip for everyone. I have met and talked to guests that have stayed weeks at the resort.

Frank Drobny
Frank Drobny
July 16, 2014 11:00 pm

They could start by staying open past 8 pm. They closed at 5 pm once when we were there in May. What a joke. Disney stays open until 3am on some nights in the summer.

Bev Trinder
Bev Trinder
July 17, 2014 3:55 am

Will never disney parks totally outclass universal and IOA even with potter attractions!

Linda Tannock McChlery
Linda Tannock McChlery
July 17, 2014 8:36 am

Disney is fun, but overpriced for everything. I get a 2 week unlimited ticket for Universal every year, and always go to Busch!

Kimberly Burrow Wood
Kimberly Burrow Wood
July 17, 2014 8:59 am

It’s not biased…it’s 1) an opinion and 2) Disney’s “motto”. Some folks, like myself, will always love Disney. The “newest” roller coaster isn’t what makes it special…it’s the overall experience. Universal is trying to mimic Disney in their “competition”; some of us will always agree that “the original is the best and can’t be beat.”

GeorgeMcvie21
GeorgeMcvie21
July 17, 2014 12:10 pm

SeaWorld is outdated and cruel. Nothing entertaining about watching drugged up orcas doing unnatural tricks in tiny swimming pools for sardines. This is the 21st century, do we really need to use animals like this anymore? Haven’t we got enough ways to entertain ourselves?

Jeff Marzolf
Jeff Marzolf
July 17, 2014 10:07 am

Buy it buy it buy it yeah!

John Truro
John Truro
July 17, 2014 11:13 am

That is still biased. It being an opinion is always biased. Only true facts are not. Also, their “motto” doesn’t really mean anything. Any place can have the motto as “the best place on earth” and be a completely terrible place.

CaptainAction
CaptainAction
July 18, 2014 7:32 am

Epcot, Dis Studios, and Animal Kingdom each grew between flat to 2% in the last 4 years. Islands of Adv grew 17%.
The most recent E Ticket rides at these overpriced Disney parks are 10-20 years old (Rockin Roller over 20 years ago, Soarin -10 years, Everest -with broken Yeti is 11 years old).
It isnt hard at all to see how Universal passes attendance at these 3 lame, half day WDW parks in the very near future.

CaptainAction
CaptainAction
July 18, 2014 7:35 am

Yes, if you like Theme Park Museums – WDW is your park. Magic Kingdoms last E Ticket attraction was over 22 years ago – Splash Mountain – Wow can you believe that?
I don’t have to wear Magic Handcuffs at Universal either, which list all my appointments, where I have to eat, and which park I have to attend in rain or shine.

Janine Isles
Janine Isles
July 18, 2014 8:39 am

I actually thought SeaWorld was boring except for the dolphin show. I wouldn’t go back again. I wouldn’t go to Busch Gardens as I don’t like roller coasters. I already get 2 water parks with my Disney Tickets and if Universal were to buy these other parks I would feel I was wasting money if I had to pay for something I wouldn’t use

Janine Isles
Janine Isles
July 18, 2014 8:40 am

I am not interested in HP at all to be honest

Normal Greg
Normal Greg
July 18, 2014 5:59 pm

Universal needs to skip this, and just focus on building out the Universal properties. After 3 trips to WDW, my entire family of 6 (9, 8, 5 and 2 year old) had a blast splitting a full week up between Universal (4 days) and LEGOLAND (2 days). Add them to the flex ticket so families have another kiddie destination to choose from if they want to go non-Disney. In the meantime, Universal needs to focus on continuing to add new and interesting attractions to Universal will WDW focuses on turning their guests upside down and shaking their loose change out… Read more »

Normal Greg
Normal Greg
July 18, 2014 6:08 pm

CaptainAction  Our last trip to WDW we stay at Beach Club, which was AWESOME, but Disney is losing its edge in the customer service dept. Met a couple of really grumpy parking lot attendants. Their new “healthy” kids menu was a drag, and we got lectured by a server at Tony’s when we tried to swap out the kids meal carrots with French fries. Add to it all the FPP hyper scheduling, and yes it certainly was not a relaxing vacation in many respects. I still love Disney, but Universal and LEGOLAND both offer great experiences as well. If you… Read more »

About Marc N. Kleinhenz

Marc N. Kleinhenz’s first dream in life was to be an astronaut. His second was an Imagineer. While neither completely worked out, he's now the editor of Orlando Informer, along with being its podcast co-host. He’s also written for 32 other sites (including Screen Rant, IGN, The Escapist, and California Informer [OI's sister site]), has had his fiction featured in several publications, and has even taught English in Japan. Imagineering school won’t be too far behind.