California theme park company to buy Miami Seaquarium

The Miami Seaquarium, the Virginia Key tourist attraction that has drawn millions of visitors to see the famous Flipper lagoon and get splashed by Lolita the killer whale, is being sold.

California-based Palace Entertainment, a subsidiary of Spanish theme park operator Parques Reunidos, signed an agreement in the past month to purchase the 38-acre park on the Rickenbacker Causeway.

What that will mean for the iconic attraction, host of generations of field trips and the Flipper TV show in the 1960s, is unknown. Representatives of Palace Entertainment were not available for interviews Thursday, and an announcement slated for wide release Friday did not mention future plans.

Owner Wometco Enterprises will close the deal and hand over the park after the Miami-Dade County Commission votes on a resolution approving the purchase, which is expected within a couple of months. The Seaquarium leases the land from the county, paying on a fluctuating scale based partly on revenues. In fiscal year 2012-13, the company paid $2.1 million. The lease runs through 2031.

The Seaquarium’s president and general manager, Andrew Hertz, told the Miami Herald on Thursday that talks with the buyer had been underway for more than two years.

“We have never offered Miami Seaquarium for sale, period,” said Hertz, whose family owns the park. “In my 18 years here, at least two, three inquiries a year have come in.”

Hertz said Palace Entertainment “came to us and made an offer” that Wometco was willing to consider. He would not disclose terms of the deal.

In December, the nonprofit online news publication Broward Bulldog reported that the deal was in the works and put the sale price at $30 million, citing an anonymous source. Hertz said that number was not correct, but would not give any more information.

The current management team, including Hertz, will remain in place, he said. He expects the new owner to undertake a study of current operations and come up with a plan about what kind of investment needs to be made in the facility.

“From the outside looking in, you’re probably not going to see a whole lot of changes at first,” he said. “After six months or a year, we’ll have a collective vision going forward of what we want the park to look like.”

Palace Entertainment owns seven theme parks, 10 water parks and 20 family entertainment centers in the United States, including Boomers in Boca Raton and Dania Beach. Madrid-based Parques Reunidos operates 72 parks or centers around the world, mostly in Europe and the United States.

In a statement, Palace Entertainment president and CEO Fernando Eiroa said the company was “excited to be adding such a premier entertainment and educational destination to our collection of family parks.”

“We understand the commitment that Miami Seaquarium has to wildlife conservation, community involvement and their dedication to both educate and entertain guests,” he said.

The Seaquarium does not release its attendance figures, but the statement said it draws more than 500,000 visitors a year and offers eight different marine animal shows and presentations a day.

Opened in 1955, the park was once home to the beloved albino porpoise, Carolina Snowball, and served as the location for the Flipper television show and films, as well as movies featuring Salty the Sea Lion.

Over the past several years, the Seaquarium has expanded from merely showing off its sea creatures to selling more hands-on experiences. Now, visitors can pay to swim with dolphins and seals or wander through a reef while wearing a dive helmet.

The park’s star, Lolita the killer whale, has long been the subject of impassioned protests and petitions from critics who say her tank is too small and her living conditions are poor. Her situation has been the subject of lawsuits, one of which was dismissed earlier this week.

In another case, the National Marine Fisheries Service was accepting comments until Friday on a proposal to include Lolita on the endangered species list of the southern resident killer whale population. The submission of comments is part of a 12-month process that will stretch through next January.

Hertz said he is confident that Lolita will remain at the Seaquarium, and said there are no plans in the near future for any changes that would affect her.

“Obviously, Lolita is a proud ambassador for her species here at the park,” he said. “Nothing is going to change with her in the short run as far as her status here at the park or her stadium.”

The planned sale brings to an end the once-massive presence of Wometco in South Florida.

The Wolfson-Meyer Theater Co., later shortened to Wometco, was founded in 1925 by brothers-in-law Mitchell Wolfson — father of Wolfsonian Museum founder Micky Wolfson — and Sidney Meyer. With Wolfson as chief executive, Wometco operated for its first two decades as a movie theater chain, opening the Capitol Theater in downtown Miami in 1926.

The company acquired the Seaquarium, then 5 years old, in 1960 and continued to grow its media empire into a half-dozen television stations — including Miami’s WTVJ – and more than 100 movie theaters. New York investment firm Kohlberg, Kravis, Roberts & Co. paid slightly more than $1 billion for Wometco in 1983, after Wolfson’s death.

Two years later, longtime Wometco employees Arthur Hertz, now 80, and Michael Brown bought back part of the business, including the Seaquarium and movie theaters. Hertz, who started as an accountant at the company in 1956, became CEO of the new Wometco, which eventually sold off its movie theaters but continued to operate the Seaquarium and about 50 Baskin-Robbins ice cream shops in the Caribbean.

Andrew Hertz said “family matters” came into play in the decision to sell the park, but stressed that the final call came down to having the right buyer, regardless of price.

“Certainly the age of the principals at our home office might have factored into it somewhat,” he said. “There’s timing and then there’s appropriateness. Appropriateness of the parties involved trumps everything.”

William Talbert III, president and CEO of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, said Thursday that the global nature of the company behind the buyer was a promising sign.

“To have an industry leader based in Europe purchasing a great, great attraction in our community is a great thing,” he said. “We’ve spoken to the Seaquarium folks, and we’re very bullish in the future to meet with the new owners and talk about how we can more aggressively promote their facility and also have an understanding of their vision, long-term, for the attraction.”

Miami Herald Staff Writer Evan S. Benn contributed to this report.