SeaWorld IPO Hopes to Make a Splash

It could be a whale of a deal. SeaWorld Entertainment plans to go public this week in an effort to raise money to pay down debt and grow its business.

Shares of the IPO priced Thursday night at $27 a share, at the top of the $24 to $27 range expected. The offering consisted of 26 million shares for a total of $702 million.

In a filing Thursday morning, private-equity firm Blackstone Group, which bought SeaWorld in 2009 for $2.3 billion in cash and assumed debt, increased the number of its own shares being sold to 16 million. SeaWorld Entertainment will issue another 10 million shares, and underwriters have an option to sell an additional 3.9 million. Shares will trade under the ticker symbol "SEAS."

Under Blackstone's management, SeaWorld's 11 parks, which include Busch Gardens and Aquatica, have gone from losses to profits. Last year, revenue grew 8 percent to $1.4 billion, and profits, which were $45 million in the red in 2010, topped $77 million in the black.

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Reinhard Dirscherl | WaterFrame | Getty Images

SeaWorld said in its filing it hopes to continue growing business "by continually introducing new attractions," and it has started experimenting with "dynamic pricing," where prices move up or down depending on demand. Last year, the average customer spent nearly 4 percent more on admission and concessions, totaling $58.37.

"It's expensive for a family of four, but it's a good experience," said Steve Churchill outside the park entrance. "You can't see that stuff in Kansas."

Andrea Porras with was her son Jah Amaru. "As a kid I learned (about) and loved Shamu so much, and so I can't wait for my son to have that in his life as well," she said.

"San Diego stands as one of the top 10 tourist destinations (in the U.S.) for international travelers, and SeaWorld is one of the major attractions for those travelers," said Tony Cherin, professor emeritus of finance at San Diego State University. "Representative of that fact was when (California) Gov. Brown most recently went to China, part of his entourage was the marketing vice president of SeaWorld."

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Even after the IPO, Blackstone will still own more than 60 percent of the company. If shares price in the mid-point of the expected range, SeaWorld will have a price-to-trailing-earnings ratio higher than peers.

In its filing the company also lists risks to the business. "We are high leveraged," with nearly $1.7 billion in debt. That could "hurt our ability to raise additional capital" and "limit our ability to react to changes in the economy or our industry," the filing said.

SeaWorld Entertainment, which boasts 67,000 animals, also faces unique risks because of its animals. The company said it could be adversely impacted by "changes in or violations of federal and state regulations governing the treatment of animals," and "featuring animals at our theme parks involves some degree of risk to our employees and guests which could materially adversely affect us." The company is appealing federal safety violations over the death in 2010 of a trainer in Florida attacked by one of its killer whales.

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Finally, IBISWorld said the U.S. theme park industry generated about $11 billion in 2011 and attracted 315 million visitors. Goldman Sachs (which just happens to be a lead underwriter of the IPO) recently wrote, "Amusement parks are a standout when compared to our hospitality coverage ... a mature industry that 'gets it.' "

We'll know if the market agrees once shares start trading Friday morning—will they make a splash, or end up under water?

—By CNBC's Jane Wells; Follow her on Twitter: @janewells