December 15, 2012 / 12:18 AM / 7 years ago

Exclusive: SeaWorld close to filing for an IPO - sources

(Reuters) - SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, controlled by Blackstone Group LP (BX.N) and best known perhaps for its performing killer whale Shamu, is close to filing for an initial public offering, according to three sources familiar with the situation.

The SeaWorld amusement park is pictured in Orlando, September 3, 2009. REUTERS/Mathieu Belanger

Orlando, Florida-based SeaWorld may try to raise $500 million (309 million pounds) to $600 million in the IPO, the sources said on Friday.

SeaWorld has selected Goldman Sachs Group Inc (GS.N) and JPMorgan Chase & Co (JPM.N) to lead the offering, which could come in early 2013, the sources said.

Goldman Sachs did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Blackstone and JPMorgan declined to comment.

Blackstone acquired SeaWorld from beer giant Anheuser-Busch InBev SA (ABI.BR) in December 2009 for $2.3 billion, according to Blackstone’s website. Joe Baratta, who was appointed Blackstone’s global head of private equity this year, led the deal.

SeaWorld owns 10 amusement parks including those with the SeaWorld, Busch Gardens and Sesame Place brands, caring for more than 67,000 animals. More than 25 million guests visit the parks each year, according to the SeaWorld website.

While Shamu, the original orca featured in SeaWorld shows, died in 1971, the name was trademarked by the company and has been given to different orcas since.

The parks have had to deal with legal fallout over the 2010 death of Florida trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was killed by an orca named Tilikum in front of horrified spectators at a SeaWorld show in Orlando, Florida.

SeaWorld has appealed a federal ruling that has kept its trainers from swimming with killer whales during public performances, arguing that physical contact between animals and their human minders is essential to its operations.

SeaWorld has not allowed trainers into the water with killer whales during shows following Branchau’s death, a policy that has remained in place since that court ruling.

Earlier this year, the theme park operator took on an additional $500 million in debt in order to pay Blackstone a dividend, Moody’s Investors Service Inc said last March.

This followed a $100 million cash payout to Blackstone by SeaWorld in the third quarter of 2011, Moody’s said, noting that the buyout firm had done relatively little to lighten the company’s debt pile since 2009, and characterized the use of cash and debt as “aggressive.”

A decision to file for an IPO of SeaWorld follows the stock market flotation this week of petroleum refiner PBF Energy Inc (PBF.N), through which Blackstone and private equity peer First Reserve Corp raised $533 million.

Reporting by Olivia Oran and Greg Roumeliotis in New York; editing by Leslie Adler, Gary Crosse and Richard Chang

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