By Neha Dimri
April 19 (Reuters) - Shares of SeaWorld Entertainment Inc , backed by Blackstone Group LP, closed up 24 percent in their market debut, valuing the theme park operator at $3.11 billion.
The SeaWorld IPO, which raised $702 million, is the latest in a slate of private equity-backed stock offerings in the United States as strong financing markets and a rise in asset values offer an attractive window of opportunity.
The company priced the IPO of 26 million shares at $27 each.
SeaWorld sold 10 million shares in the offering, while the rest were sold by Blackstone, which made $432 million. Blackstone's stake in SeaWorld will come down to 63.3 percent after the IPO, assuming underwriters exercise their option to buy shares.
SeaWorld shares rose as much as 28 percent to a high of $34.65 on the New York Stock Exchange on Friday.
"In this regulatory climate the barriers for creating and constructing equivalent parks is very high. Sea parks would be very hard to duplicate now and the brand would be very expensive to duplicate," said Francis Gaskins, a partner at IPODesktop.com, an IPO research company.
Blackstone, which also owns a substantial stake in Legoland operator Merlin Entertainments Group, acquired SeaWorld from brewer Anheuser Busch InBev SA in December 2009 for $2.3 billion, according to the private equity firm's website.
"SeaWorld Entertainment parks are a little more family-kid friendly than the others, and include an educational component, which is a plus for them," Gaskins said.
The Orlando, Florida-based company, which owns 11 theme parks under brands such as SeaWorld, Busch Gardens and Sesame Place, competes with Walt Disney Co, Six Flags Entertainment Corp and Cedar Fair LP.
A number of private equity-backed companies have sought to tap public markets in the past six months. Blackstone took packaged foods maker Pinnacle Foods Inc public in March with a valuation of about $2.3 billion.
Payment processor Evertec Inc, which listed last week, real estate services company Realogy Holdings Corp and plastic-packaging manufacturer Berry Plastics Group Inc were backed by Apollo Global Management LLC .
SeaWorld reported net income of $77.4 million and revenue of $1.42 billion in 2012.
Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Securities are the lead underwriters for the offering.