U parks in Spain

Firm takes managing stake in Port Aventura

Looking to let Europe get a taste of its theme park biz, Universal announced Monday its acquisition of 40.5% of Spain’s largest theme park, Port Aventura, with the intent to manage and expand it.

Universal paid 10.25 billion pesetas (approximately $67 million) to Tussaud’s Group Ltd. for the interest in the theme park. On completion of the deal, U will share ownership with the Spanish bank Caja de Ahorros y Pensiones de Barcelona and American brewery Anheuser-Busch.

The park will be renamed Universal’s Port Aventura, and U will take over full management of the park, located 60 miles south of Barcelona on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.

The venture fits in with Seagram chairman Edgar Bronfman Jr.’s plan to expand music and theme park divisions of Universal Studios. U recently acquired Polygram for more than $10 billion, largely for its successful music arm.

The move marks U’s launch into the European recreation market and the second effort from a U.S. studio for a theme park. Disney opened Euro Disney six years ago outside of Paris.

Euro Disney, whose name was changed in 1994 to Disneyland Paris, struggled in its first few years with a French populace that was said to be alienated by the Mouse House with its restrictive rules.

But lately, the theme park has grown more popular with a more relaxed set of guidelines for visitors.

U has already started construction on theme parks in Beijing, China, and Osaka, Japan, and already operates the Florida-based Universal Studios park.

“We’ve always talked about being in the global recreation business other than in Beijing, Osaka, Florida and here,” said Ron Meyer, prexy and chief operating officer of U Studios.

Meyer lauded Port Aventura’s current situation as the perfect entry vehicle for U into the Euro theme park arena. “It’s already a successful park,” he said. “It’s not like we’re experimenting.”

Port Aventura is four years old with more than 30 rides and attractions, including the largest roller-coaster on the European continent. It also has retail locations, live shows, games and more than 23 restaurants.

Divided into five themed worlds of Mediterranea, Polynesia, China, Mexico and the Far West, Aventura attracts 3 million visitors annually. If the park is successful, U will develop more of the park’s 2,000 acres with some American elements, such as the “Back to The Future” ride.