Magic of Merlin Attracts Apax

Apax Partners in December invested GBP20 million (euro 29 million) to back a GBP47 million buyout of Vardon’s Attractions division, supporting Nick Varney, formerly a main board director of Vardon, and Andrew Carr, the division’s finance director.

Renamed Merlin, the acquired company operates the York and London Dungeons and 23 Sea Life Centres, located throughout the UK and in Continental Europe. The business made a GBP7.2 million operating profit in 1997.

Merlin plans further expansion of its core educational and entertainment brands into European markets, particularly Germany, where themed attractions enjoy great popularity. The company’s first inland Sea Life centre, a GBP6 million development in Konstanz, will open this Easter. Visitors to the centre will take a themed “journey”along the Rhein from its source in the Alps to its mouth on the Dutch coast and beyond into the depths of the Atlantic. Merlin also hopes to open its third Dungeon attraction – the first of its kind in Continental Europe – in Hamburg later this year.

The new owners also plan to grow Merlin through adding management contracts and via outright acquisitions of existing visitor attraction businesses.

The buyout team holds a 10% stake in Merlin alongside the vendor, Vardon, which has retained 10%, and Apax and Chase Capital Partners, who together hold the remaining 80%. Bank of Scotland underwrote the debt package for the deal.