Alton Towers owner MerlinEntertainments(LSE: MERL) was the FTSE 100's top performing stock in trading yesterday, rising almost 3.5%. The reason? It would appear that the company is keen to purchase parts of US theme park giant SeaWorld, the only snag being the latter's preference for an outright sale.
This news isn't exactly unexpected, particularly as Merlin did hint at purchasing SeaWorld's African-inspired Busch Gardens theme park when announcing its interim results back in August. Nevertheless, a deal now seems particularly opportunistic given that the Florida-based marine park operator's shares have lost a quarter of their value so far this year and hit an all-time low of just over $11 a couple of months ago. To give some perspective, the stock changed hands for nearly $40 a shot four years ago before accusations were made about the way in which the company treated the whales in its parks and attendance figures began to dwindle.
This seems an understandable move by Merlin, especially as it's already the world's largest aquarium operator. Even if a deal doesn't materialise, I still think there are a number of reasons for investors to consider adding the £4.7bn cap to their portfolios.
While its elephant-like nature means its share price won't exactly gallop anytime soon, an expected 16% rise in earnings per share in the next financial year leaves it trading at 19 times forecast earnings. That's not screamingly cheap but nor is it ludicrously expensive for a business with an ambitious international growth strategy. Indeed, so geographically diversified are the company's assets, I believe it could be a good stock to hold as we approach our EU departure. Factor-in consistently high operating margins and decent free cash flow and there are surely far worse picks in the market's top tier.
Strike it rich
Those with more risk appetite might wish to take a closer look at £276m cap HollywoodBowl(LSE: BOWL). Shares rose in early trading this morning after an encouraging year-end trading update from the Hemel Hempstead-based firm.
Since coming to the market last September, the UK's largest ten-pin bowling operator said that it had met its goals of expanding its sites, refurbishing those already in its possession and rebranding those taken over from peer Bowlplex. This has led to "strong financial and operational performance" which is now expected to be "marginallyahead" of previous expectations. Revenue growth of 10% was seen in H2 compared to the same period in 2016, with like-for-like growth for the whole year now predicted to come in at 3.5%.
It gets even better for holders of the stock. Building on hints made in its half-year trading update and thanks to its cash generative nature, the company reiterated its intention to return cash to investors in the form of a special dividend at some point in the future. More news on this is expected when full-year results are confirmed in December.
At a time when many growth stocks are starting to look frothy, it's pleasing to note that shares in Hollywood Bowl still look reasonably priced, trading as they are at 17 times earnings. Assuming analyst earnings projections for the next financial year are hit, this falls to just 15 times earnings for 2018/19.
While it would be a mistake to forget that its business model can be easily replicated, Hollywood Bowl remains a promising growth play.
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Paul Summers has no position in any of the shares mentioned. The Motley Fool UK has recommended Hollywood Bowl. Views expressed on the companies mentioned in this article are those of the writer and therefore may differ from the official recommendations we make in our subscription services such as Share Advisor, Hidden Winners and Pro. Here at The Motley Fool we believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.