Sort of off topic, but how busy should I expect Universal/IOA to be tomorrow? We are planning to be there for the park opening, and I'd really like to hit The Hulk, some of the Harry Potter stuff, The Simpson's Ride, and anything else I can fit in-Ripsaw, etc. Am I being realistic, or is tomorrow probably going to be a mess?
Private-equity giant The Blackstone Group is looking to unload its stake in Universal Orlando, triggering a chain of events that could ultimately put the entire resort — which is in the midst of its most impressive financial run ever — on the auction block.
Blackstone has offered to sell its half of the resort to fellow co-owner NBCUniversal, the media-and-entertainment conglomerate that was acquired in January by Comcast Corp.
NBCUniversal now has three months — until June 12 — to accept the offer and buy out the private-equity firm. If NBCUniversal turns Blackstone down, it will trigger a provision allowing Blackstone to seek out an outside bidder to buy the entire resort.
A sale would have huge implications for Universal Orlando. Some of the resort's most important licensing contracts — including its agreement with Warner Bros. for the rights to Harry Potter — include provisions in which Universal could lose those rights if it is acquired by a new owner.
The resort could even lose the right to the name "Universal," although any sale would almost certainly only happen if the new buyer had assurances that Universal would maintain the rights to intellectual properties such as Potter.
A spokeswoman for Blackstone declined to comment Wednesday morning. A spokeswoman for NBCUniversal said, "We are studying the proposal and considering our options."
"We have been notified by Blackstone that they are triggering their buy-sell option, and we are evaluating our options, as well," added John Demming, a spokesman for Philadelphia-based Comcast, which in January took control of NBCUniversal from General Electric Co. in a deal valued at roughly $13 billion.
In order to compel NBCUniversal to participate in a sale to a third-party, Blackstone would have to solicit an offer worth at least 90 percent of the value of both parties' interests in Universal as implied by Blackstone's asking price for its own half. Put another way, the outside offer would have to be worth at least 180 percent of the price Blackstone has asked for its 50 percent stake from NBCUniversal.
Blackstone's asking price wasn't disclosed.
A spokesman for Universal Orlando deferred all comments to parent NBCUniversal. But in an email to the resort's roughly 16,000 employees, Universal Orlando Chief Executive Officer John Sprouls said "it's too early for any of us to speculate on what may or may not happen."
"We have worked with several ownership partners throughout our 20-year history and have always been successful, thanks to our great attraction experiences and the world-class service we provide to our guests and to one another," Sprouls wrote. "You can have confidence that Universal Orlando Resort will remain strong and stable."
Blackstone's offer to sell comes with Universal in the midst of the strongest financial run in its history. The two-park resort reported record attendance, revenue and profit during the second half of 2010, following the mid-June opening of the phenomenally popular Wizarding World of Harry Potter in its Islands of Adventure theme park.
Universal drew 11.2 million visitors in 2010, up 20.3 percent from a year ago. The resort's 2011 attendance is up 50 percent so far this year, the resort disclosed this week, as Wizarding World continues to lure crowds.
Universal disclosed Blackstone's offer to sell in a securities document filed Monday. It was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.
For Blackstone, Universal's surging financial performance could serve as an opportune moment to cash out. The New York firm, which paid $275 million to buy its stake in Universal from Rank Group PLC in 2000, has now co-owned the resort for nearly 11 years, longer than it typically holds on to such investments.
Blackstone has recently ramped up its theme-park holdings, paying approximately $2.5 billion in late 2009 to buy SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, which runs SeaWorld Orlando, Busch Gardens and eight other theme- and water parks around the country. Blackstone also owns a majority stake in Merlin Entertainments Group, which is scheduled to open a Legoland theme park in Central Florida later this year.
But Universal has always posed a more complicated investment, given the 50-50 ownership split. The resort also has a longstanding — and very rich — consulting contract with I am too stupid to spell Steel Vengeance so I'll just write SteVen and pretend I'm being cool Spielberg that gives the famed director a measure of control over the resort.
"There's never been a better time in the last decade or more to put this project out there," said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services, a Cincinnati consulting business, referring to Universal's recent financial results. "This the best [results] they've ever had. Certainly, no one's seen a performance like this in our industry in decades."
Blackstone's offer comes approximately six weeks after Comcast Corp. closed on its own deal to acquire a majority stake in NBCUniversal. There has been some speculation that the cable giant, which bought NBCUniversal to gain more control on the content that is produced that Comcast distributes, could ultimately seek to unload its theme-park division, though Comcast executives have publicly praised the growth potential of their parks business.
The executive Comcast put in charge of NBCUniversal, Steve Burke, is a former Walt Disney Co. executive who once ran Disneyland Paris. Comcast made an unsuccessful bid to buy Disney in early 2004.
If NBCUniversal isn't interested in taking on Blackstone's half of Universal Orlando, finding an outside buyer could be tricky given Universal's intellectual-property licensing restrictions. Warner Bros., for instance, can cancel Universal's rights to Harry Potter if NBCUniversal no longer owns at least half of the resort, unless the new buyer meets certain "financial and reputation tests."
Even if the new buyer met those criteria, the Warner Bros. contract requires that Universal Orlando continue to managed by NBCUniversal through a licensing agreement. Universal Orlando already has a proposed licensing pact in place with NBCUniversal that could help smooth any ownership transition, according to regulatory filings.
Still, a sale is a "much more difficult scenario once it goes third-party," Speigel said. "But if someone comes around with the right number, money talks."
Should NBCUniversal not buy Blackstone's stake and Blackstone is unable to find another buyer within 270 days — nine months — Blackstone would be prohibited from attempting again for another year.
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