By John Dorschner,BrowardBulldog.org
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 final 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 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 BrowardBulldog.org 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 did not respond to two requests for 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.
TENANT OF MIAMI-DADE COUNTY
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.
KILLER WHALE CONTROVERSY
In recent years, animal rights activists have objected to the Seaquarium’s keeping dolphins and killer whales in captivity, even filing a federal lawsuit in 2012 objecting to the living condition of Lolita, the killer whale. The lawsuit is pending.
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 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. Payments to the county that year were $627,000.
Palace Entertainment’s web site 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 that the company described as “America’s largest water park.” Terms of that deal were not disclosed.
The Hertz family has long been civic leaders in South Florida. Arthur has been chair of the prestigious Orange Bowl Comittee, 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.
Allan Postgate / December 5, 2013 2:47 pm
“The public doesn’t care” says Arthur Hertz (and, by implication, he doesn’t either). Well, after Blackfish, I would say the goalposts have moved significantly. Watch your back, Arthur Hertz and Seaquarium!!
Tyrone G. / December 5, 2013 3:33 pm
I really hope this place gets torn down and rebuild. So that way it can be up to date! And I also hope to stay employed here at the seaquarium. It is a great place to work and meet fun and exciting people. And I pray we get a Better tank for the animal Lolita the killer whale. -I work in food service and love my job!
Hollywood Resident / December 6, 2013 1:18 pm
Whales and dolphins deserve better than to be imprisoned clowns for our children. Our children deserve better than to be taught that its fun to imprison animals for our personal entertainment. There is a term for taking pleasure in others misery, and its: SOCIOPATHY. Don’t teach it to your children.
Teresa Wagner / December 28, 2013 11:24 am
It’s time to free Lolita to a sea pen. She’s made enough millions for this marine park owner. Bring in a magnificent water cirque du soleil. Let humans entertain humans in your tank. It’s time for Lolita to go home.
Sean / December 28, 2013 12:29 pm
Lolita is WAYBtoo big for this antiquated tank and not only that, captivity is JUST wrong. Why not let Andrew Hertz be the captive so he can see what it would feel like to be swimming around in circles constantly for the next 40 or so years all the while flip and flopping likena clown performing for others and never being allowed to socialize or play with his own immediate family ever. Let’s see if he will Then enjoy that for the rest of his life.
The business isn’t what he really enjoys…it’s the $$$$ he relishes. In other words, its greed that he’s after and he wants his son to keep a hand in it too if it ever gets sold to the hispanics.
Theresa Pugh / December 28, 2013 7:56 pm
Oh we care, alright. Empty the tanks and free Lolita, money grubbing asshats!
Dorien Tilman / December 29, 2013 5:11 am
Maybe your non informed public doesn’t care but don’t underestimate the power of your (now) informed public. The Blackfish movement is and will keep growing. This animal abuse has been going on for far too long now. It needs to stop!!! All you people care about are dollars not the well being of these precious creatures.
We’re done with all your lies. We wont be silent and we’ll never give up. Not till the last marine park closes her doors.
Diane D / January 4, 2014 3:00 pm
Captivity is not the answer. It is wrong to teach our children that holding animals against their will and forcing them to entertain us is just plain inhumane! Arthur Hertz, you’ve made a great living for yourself-have a soul…..release Lolita!
Jimena / February 17, 2016 4:59 pm
Greedy despicable people!
They had the chance to pass through history as the heros whom released Lolita but they did not took the opportunity, they will pass as the horrible,ambitious, greedy persons they are.
“Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty” A. Einstein
“The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated” M. Gandhi