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Blackstone jumps on Italian theme park

The US private equity fund has added another attraction to its burgeoning European-focused portfolio, which it has built up through Merlin Entertainments.

The Blackstone Group has bought Italy’s top theme park Gardaland in northern Italy, including the Gardaland Resort Hotel, for an undisclosed sum.

Through majority-owned portfolio company Merlin Entertainments, the acquisition makes Blackstone the owner of Europe’s number one visitor attraction group, with more than 16 million visitors across 37 sites.

It further consolidates Europe’s fragmented theme park sector and underlines Blackstone’s credentials as an investor in non mainstream property assets. A few weeks ago, the firm revealed plans to develop a chain of student accommodation properties across Europe, starting in London’s King’s Cross in north London.

Blackstone made giant strides into the attractions sector in May 2005 when it bought Merlin via the Blackstone Capital Partners IV fund from Hermes Private Equity for $189 million (€147 million). As part of the deal, the Merlin management team, led by chief executive Nick Varney, continued to run the company.

Blackstone subsequently bought LEGOLAND, which Merlin was in the hunt to buy for itself.

In a statement, Joseph Barata, a senior managing director at Blackstone said: “With the LEGOLAND acquisition last year we clearly indicated our determination to work with the management team to build Merlin Entertainments into a world-class theme park and attractions business, and the market leader in Europe.”

Merlin owns theme parks and attractions in 11 different countries under the LEGOLAND, SEA LIFE, Dungeons, Earth Explorer and now the Gardaland banner.

The four LEGOLAND theme parks are in the UK, Denmark, Germany and California in the US. It has 22 SEA LIFE Centers in the UK, Germany, Finland, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Ireland and Belgium.

Not only does the Gardaland theme park boast a hotel on the banks of Lake Garda, but it also contains an area zoned for significant development. The company plans to introduce the SEA LIFE brand and a LEGOLAND discovery center.

Blackstone purchased the property from Investindustrial and Aletti Merchant, owned by Italy’s Banco Popolare di Verona e Novara, which will retain a minority stake in Gardaland. The bank supplied the financing to buy the attraction in 2005 for around €300 million.