Miami-Dade County

Amusement-parks giant in talks to buy Miami Seaquarium

The owner of South Florida’s iconic tourist attraction, the Miami Seaquarium, has had “discussions” about selling to a California-based subsidiary of a Spanish parks operator but said no deal has been struck.

Arthur Hertz, chief executive of Wometco Enterprises, which owns the 58-year-old attraction, confirmed the talks were with Palace Entertainment, which owns a string of amusement parks and facilities, including Boomers in Dania Beach and Boca Raton.

“We have had discussions,” said Hertz, 80, noting that Wometco is in no rush to sell. “We’ve had many discussions over the years” with different companies.

A source who wished to remain anonymous told Editor Dan Christensen last week that Hertz had negotiated a deal to sell the Seaquarium to Palace for about $30 million. The source said a nondisclosure agreement was signed while due-diligence steps by the purchaser were being completed. Christensen characterized the source as “knowledgeable.”

The deal reportedly includes a provision that would allow Hertz’s son, Andrew, to remain on to manage the Seaquarium.

Arthur Hertz refused to comment about details of the discussions.

A Palace spokeswoman in Newport Beach, Calif., did not respond to two requests for a comment. Palace Entertainment is a subsidiary of Madrid-based park operator Parques Reunidos.

For decades, the Seaquarium has been a venerable mainstay of the South Florida tourism industry. Its greatest fame came in the mid-1960s, when the attraction was used to make 88 television episodes and two movies of the dolphin Flipper. Starting in 1971, when Walt Disney World opened in Orlando, attendance fell for many years.

Still, the Seaquarium remains a major tenant of Miami-Dade County, which leases 33 waterfront acres to the attraction on the Rickenbacker Causeway. The facility, which has a lease running to 2031, pays the county $2.7 million a year, according to a county spokeswoman. Payments are based on a percentage of revenue, indicating that the Seaquarium has gross receipts of about $25 million a year.

Wometco was founded in 1925 by two brothers-in-law, Mitchell Wolfson and Sidney Meyer. Wolfson — often known as “the colonel” in Miami — became chief executive. For the first two decades, Wometco was a movie-theater chain. In 1955, the company opened the Seaquarium and kept expanding until it owned six television stations, 100 movie theaters, cable-television systems, and bottling plants.

In 1983, after Wolfson’s death, Wometco was sold to Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co., a New York investment firm, for slightly more than $1 billion. In 1985, two longtime Wometco employees, Hertz and Michael Brown, bought back part of the business — including the Seaquarium, movie theaters, and food services.

Hertz, who had started with Wometco as an accountant in 1956 and had risen to chief operating officer, became chief executive of the new Wometco. The company eventually sold off the movie theaters. Its operations today are the Seaquarium and 50 Baskin-Robbins ice-cream shops in the Caribbean.

In the 1990s, the Seaquarium pushed hard to get zoning approval for a $70 million expansion to create a full-fledged water park with slides and pools and other attractions on the Rickenbacker site. Miami Herald stories talked then about how attendance had hit a high of 1.1 million in 1971 — the year Walt Disney World opened, and collapsed to less than half that by 1985, before starting to slowly rise again.

“Seaquarium is tired,” Hertz told the Herald in 1991. “It’s an old facility with no modernization for the last 20 years. If we’re going to retain it, we’ve got to rebuild.”

The village of Key Biscayne battled the expansion plans for years, and the war carried over to the courts. “We’d win in the lower courts, but lose in the higher courts,” Hertz said. Finally, he gave up the fight.

In recent years, animal-rights activists have objected to the Seaquarium keeping dolphins and killer whales in captivity, even filing a federal lawsuit in 2012 objecting to the living conditions of Lolita, the killer whale. A judge dismissed the lawsuit.

Last April, the Herald reported, the federal government agreed to consider whether Lolita should be declared part of an endangered species.

“Lolita has been part of the Miami Seaquarium family for more than 42 years, and is as active and healthy as ever,” Andrew Hertz told the Herald in 2012. “Lolita will continue to be an ambassador for her species from her home at Miami Seaquarium.”

Andrew Hertz did not respond to phone call seeking a comment.

Arthur Hertz said Tuesday the activists’ objections “are still going on,” but their demands that visitors boycott the Seaquarium had no effect. “The public doesn’t care.”

Revenue in recent years has been on a steadily upward trend, as measured by lease payments to the county that rose from $1.4 million in fiscal 2001 to $2.7 million in 2013. The exception was 2005, when Hurricane Wilma and other storms damaged the facility.

Palace Entertainment’s website boasts that it is “one of the leading leisure park operators in the United States,” with parks located in 11 states, hosting 13 million visitors a year.

Palace has recently been in an expansive mode. Last year, it purchased Noah’s Ark, a 70-acre water park in Wisconsin Dells, Wis., that the company described as “America’s largest water park.” Terms of that deal were not disclosed.

Hertz family members have long been civic leaders in South Florida. Arthur has been chair of the Orange Bowl Committee, a senior trustee at the University of Miami, a longtime leader of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, and a onetime board member of the Jackson Health System.

His son, Andrew, whose title is president and general manager of the Seaquarium, has been following in his father’s footsteps and is the current chair of the Orange Bowl Committee.

Dan Christensen, a former Miami Herald reporter and columnist for The Daily Business Review, is founding editor of www.floridabulldog.orga nonprofit online.