Blackstone buys stake in Great Wolf Resorts

H&LA’s David Sangree gave some great insight on the waterpark industry for an article in the Chicago Tribune about Blackstone Real Estate Partners IX, an affiliate of Blackstone Group, acquiring a 65% stake in the waterpark operator from owner Centerbridge Partners. Together, they will create a $2.9 billion joint venture to own Great Wolf Resorts.

Published by Mary Ellen Podmolik/Chicago Tribune

Published date: October 2019

The owner of Willis Tower is getting into indoor water parks, buying a majority stake in Great Wolf Resorts.

Blackstone Real Estate Partners IX, an affiliate of Blackstone Group, will acquire a 65% stake in the Chicago-based water park operator from owner Centerbridge Partners, the two firms announced Wednesday. Together, they will create a $2.9 billion joint venture to own Great Wolf, which has grown to 18 resorts in the U.S. and Canada.

Financial terms were not disclosed.

In announcing the deal, the companies said Great Wolf has significant expansion opportunities. Centerbridge bought Great Wolf from Apollo Global Management in March 2015 and since that time Great Wolf has opened seven water parks, including the former Key Lime Cove in Gurnee. It spent $60 million to spruce up the property.

“Great Wolf stands to benefit greatly from Blackstone’s world-class insights and expertise in hospitality, and values Centerbridge’s continued involvement as we look to further expand the Great Wolf brand with the development of new resorts and enhancements to our renowned immersive family experiences,” Murray Hennessy, the CEO of Great Wolf Resorts, said in a news release.

The company, based in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, opened a resort in Arizona last week and another is under construction in Northern California that is scheduled to open in mid-2020.

Water park development has been on the upswing. Last year saw the opening or expansion of 13 indoor water parks and 19 outdoor parks, according to Cleveland-based consulting firm Hotel & Leisure Advisors. The square footage additions to the indoor water park segment of the industry, and the more than 2,600 hotel rooms included, were the most since 2008 and 2009, respectively, the firm said.

This year, the pace of openings is expected to top 2018, the firm predicted. Additions include a water park at Margaritaville Resort Orlando in Kissimmee, Fla., and the scheduled opening later this year of Dreamworks Water Park at the American Dream megamall in Rutherford, N.J.

“There have been a number of new water parks that have opened, but it is still a relatively small number of large resorts because the financing is so challenging for these properties,” said David Sangree, president of Hotel & Leisure Advisors, in an email. “The new water parks have included both municipal properties as well as private facilities. Great Wolf Lodge and Kalahari resorts have been the two largest developers of indoor water park resorts, with Great Wolf adding the most properties.”

Centerbridge was considering strategic options for Great Wolf after it had received unsolicited takeover interest, Bloomberg reported in April.

Blackstone, under various funds, is one of the largest property owners in the world. In 2015, it bought Willis Tower for $1.3 billion and is now in the midst of a $500 million expansion at the skyscraper.