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SeaWorld makes a splash on NYSE as stock gains

NEW YORK (AP) - SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. made a splash Friday in its first day of trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

The owner of theme parks famous for water shows featuring killer whales and dolphins jumped $6.52, or 24 percent, to close at $33.52 after the company and its backers raised $702 million.

The initial public offering of 26 million shares was priced at $27 per share, which was at the high end of the expected range of $24 to $27 per share. The IPO's size also increased from the 20 million shares that SeaWorld and its owner, private equity firm Blackstone Group LP, had hoped to sell. The pricing of the offering and boost to its size suggests that there was solid demand for the shares.

The first SeaWorld opened in San Diego in 1964. It was bought by beer giant Anheuser-Busch in 1989 and combined with the brewer's Busch Gardens park in Florida.

The company has grown to span 11 theme parks housing 67,000 animals. Besides the three SeaWorld parks, the company owns two Busch Gardens parks, several water parks and Sesame Place, an amusement park based on the children's TV show Sesame Street. It had net income of $77.4 million on revenue of $1.42 billion in 2012.

Francis Gaskins, president and editor of IPODesktop.com, said SeaWorld is an "iconic brand" that is appealing in part because its properties are particularly kid-friendly, even more so than those of peers like Six Flags and Cedar Fair LP.

SeaWorld had warned in a December filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that its business is dependent on customers' willingness to spend on leisure and entertainment. The company has managed to do well despite lingering concerns about the economy and high unemployment in the U.S. Its revenue has risen since it was bought by Blackstone in 2009.

About 24 million people attended its parks during the 12 months ended Sept. 30. The company did not disclose how that figure has grown or shrank in the past few years, but says it has a "stable attendance base."

Before buying SeaWorld, Anheuser-Busch started Busch Gardens in Tampa in 1959. More than half of SeaWorld's revenue today is generated in Florida. The company is now based in the theme park mecca of Orlando, also home to Walt Disney Co.'s Walt Disney World resort and Universal Studios.

Some of SeaWorld's competitors have had a difficult climb back from the recession. Amusement park operator Six Flags Entertainment Corp. filed for bankruptcy protection in 2009, emerging in mid-2010. It has been growing revenue since then, although it posted a loss in 2011.

SeaWorld has looked for other ways to stay competitive, branching out with a Saturday morning television show, "Sea Rescue," on the ABC network to attract young viewers.

Blackstone, which had bought SeaWorld from Anheuser-Busch for $2.3 billion, will still have a majority stake in SeaWorld after the IPO.

SeaWorld offered 10 million shares in the deal, while Blackstone sold 16 million shares. SeaWorld will receive about $245.4 million in proceeds after expenses, with no proceeds from shares sold by Blackstone. It plans to use the money to repay debt and to pay a one-time fee to Blackstone.

The banks managing the deal could also buy another 3.9 million shares, which would raise total proceeds of the deal.

SeaWorld is not the only strong IPO debut this week. On Wednesday shares of the popular New York grocery store chain Fairway, which is trading on the Nasdaq under the "FWM" ticker symbol, gained 33 percent.

SeaWorld's stock trades under the "SEAS" ticker symbol. Its offering is expected to close next Wednesday.


(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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