Looking Back At The Empress Lilly

Have you ever taken note of the beautiful classic riverboat docked along the shore at Downtown Disney? Today it's home to Fulton's Crab House, but back in the day she was called The Empress Lilly, and the ultimate Disney location for the posh dining at Walt Disney World.

From Empress Lily to PaddlefishFrom Empress Lily to Paddlefish

This re-creation of an 19th Century paddle-wheeler was named after Walt Disney's wife Lillian, who christened the ship in 1977. At 220 feet long and 62 feet wide, she looks for all practical purposes like a boat - however she's actually a building that sits a top a submerged foundation just a few feet off shore. Built before Pleasure Island was added she sat off in the distance from the shopping village, an old fashioned ship that had docked along beautiful landscaped shores surrounded with graceful willows waving in the wind. Three decks and a pilot house, each with gleaming white gingerbread scrolling around, at night the twinkling lights exuded an old Southern romance that few locations could match. Inside this royal lady was decorated in an elegant Louis VX style, it was a special place built for sophistication.

An Elegant Paddle-wheeler Docked on the SassagoulaAn Elegant Paddle-wheeler Docked on the Sassagoula

Back in the day she held three different restaurants and a jazz bar. Many a long time Disney fan has shared with me memories of dressing up to attend the Character Breakfast on board - which was one of the first on property. Kids in attendance were encouraged to use their finest manners and were presented with a certificate, or pennant during the meal. For me as a child, a visit to the Empress Lily was one of the highlights of our Walt Disney World vacations. I wasn't alone either, because this grand and elegant restaurant, with its gourmet chef was widely considered one of the best places to eat in central Florida.

The Empress Lilly's Paddle-wheel Churned for YearsThe Empress Lilly's Paddle-wheel Churned for Years

In the early 90's, despite her popularity, Disney decided that sub-contracting it's Downtown Disney restaurants would be to its best interest, and the doors closed on the Empress Lily in 1995. The Levy Organization secured a 20 year contract for the location, and in 1996 re-opened the doors of this amazing building as "Fulton's Crab House." During the Renovation the ship's smokestacks and paddle-wheel were removed and it was considered too costly to replace them. A giant neon sign was added declaring "Fulton's Crab House" in a manner that no one would mistake as a vestige of the building's former life.

Fulton's Crab House TodayFulton's Crab House

However - as Downtown Disney underwent it's transformation into Disney Springs in 2015 this space was reimagined once again, this time as Paddlefish. A fresh new look was in store for the very unique building, it brought a more modern and urban feel to the Lake Buena Vista shoreline. Clean lines and a new neutral color scheme were implemented, and long time fans cheered when smoke stacks and a paddlewheel were moved in place paying homage to history. Most remarkably the "rooftop" bar was transformed into and urban patio with live music, craft cocktails, and some truly magnificent views of Disney Springs.

Paddlefish Offers A Bright Modern FeelPaddlefish Offers A Bright Modern Feel

The lights still twinkle and glimmer, reflecting off the water at night, but the the romance of the Mississippi in an era gone by has given way to a reimagined, modern and luxurious steamboat. It's a bustling atmosphere, with a metropolitan feel, yet still I'm always a little wistful. I remember the grand white glove brunches of my youth onboard the Empress Lily, and smile.

Thanks so much to Bob Rowan, Lorraine Paulhus, and our friends over at the Disney Food Blog for sharing these Empress Lilly Images through Creative Commons. What are your thoughts on this landmark building? Do you remember the paddle wheel, or has it always been the crab house to you? Leave a comment and let me know!

Deborah wrote on Thu, 09/05/2013 - 14:04:

Deborah's picture

Ahhhh "Children using their finest manners" I remember when parents "taught" that skill! My daughter needed to only look at me to know what was permitted in public. NOW at Disney and in Restaurants, many parents indulge their little darlings, without restrictions, to the annoyance of the rest of us!

Kristen K. wrote on Thu, 09/05/2013 - 14:53:

Kristen K.'s picture

Sing it sistah!

PaulDiem wrote on Thu, 09/05/2013 - 19:32:

PaulDiem's picture

Haha thats the truth! I wish I could have eaten there before it was Fultons. It sounded amazing!

While were in the area... does anyone else miss Pleasure Island? I honeslty think it was a bad decision to get rid of it. It competed with Universals City Walk and was home to some of the best places to drink and dance in Central florida. As a former cast member, I had a blast there and the only bad night for guests to go would be thursday due to CP night. It was packed with drunk college kids. I sure miss those days!

Fran Cronin wrote on Sat, 09/28/2013 - 21:00:

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My husband and I were married in April of 1977 and we honeymooned in Flordia. That was 36 years ago. We had dinner on the Empress Lily. It is a beautiful boat. I am so happy it is still there. We will be visitin Flordia next year in 2014 and would love to see the new Resturant.

Paula wrote on Sun, 02/08/2015 - 21:56:

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What a wonderful essay...I so remember the glory days of the Empress Lilly! It was the first character breakfast that we took our sons to...ages 2 and 6. I treasure the photos. Dinner in the evening, with a group of friends while the children were well cared for by Disney staff, is a beautiful memory. It was an exquisite dining experience! I'm so happy that we "grew up" during Disney's glory days. My children just took their 4 and 6 year old boys to Disney for a week. They had to book everything six months or more in advance...EVEN THE RIDES! It sounded like automatons were running the show!

Lisa wrote on Sat, 02/14/2015 - 17:16:

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I worked on The Empress Lilly when I did the WDW College Program during the Fall 1994 semester. It was a beautiful place to work and each restaurant on the ship had its own character and dining experience. I was sad to see it go but glad that the structure is still there and can't wait to take my baby girl there when she's a little bit older.

Allison wrote on Wed, 07/08/2015 - 18:15:

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I have such fond memories of my father taking me there as a young child, I was around six or seven years old. My father was a foodie before the term existed and he loved to go to any new, hot restaurant. I am now 43 and remember this night as it was the first time I had filet mignon with bearnaise sauce. I remember they served the sauce in a hollowed out tomato on the side and it was delicious. The decor was amazing and for a small child it really felt like stepping back in time. Over the years I have had the pleasure of dining at many wonderful restaurants with my father however the Empress Lilly will always stand out in my mind as a very special place.

Theresa wrote on Thu, 07/30/2015 - 23:20:

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Married in 1993 we enjoyed lovely dinners at the Captains Table and the Cattlemans Quarters. We returned from Pennsylvania the next two years. Although the marriage did not last, I am hoping to return this Fall to see my old Disney friends (Tinker Bell).

Mary Hendrickson wrote on Tue, 06/07/2016 - 22:34:

Mary Hendrickson's picture

My husband, Mike Hendrickson worked at Disneyworld for twelve years. He had lots of memobelia from there including a menu from Empress Lilly. Does canyon know if it's worth anything.
I loved to dance at Pleasure Island in the 80's.

Kristen K. wrote on Thu, 06/09/2016 - 15:47:

Kristen K.'s picture

Hi Mary! My advice is to check out Ebay for the pricing of Disney collectibles. Some have great value, others not so much. Good luck!

Pat wrote on Tue, 09/06/2016 - 16:27:

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I was married on the Empress Lilly on June 29, 1994. We were married on the top deck and are reception was in the two rooms on the top floor. It was so elegant. I was so sad to see the sign of Fulton Crab House, the removal of the red paddle wheel and instead of the ship painted white it was white and grey. It went from Royal to Tub Boat Annie.

Happy to see the new renovations and at least it was have a river boat look, but it will not be the Empress Lilly named for Walt Disney's wife Lillian.

Steve wrote on Sat, 12/17/2016 - 17:53:

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My first memory of the empress lilly was happening upon it on our first family trip to Disney in March of 1980. My father refered to it as "The Ship" and after that night it was his favorite place to eat. He would tell all of his friends about it and if he knew you were going to Orlando he was adamant that you had to eat there. Every trip there after that we had to eat there and quickly became a tradition with our family as the night we were going to eat at "The Ship". I remember they didn't take reservations and it was always a long wait to get a table, but the homemade basket of potato chips kept us topped up until our table was ready. Decor was so elegant and it felt like you were transported back to the old south. Amazing memories of that restaurant.

td wrote on Sun, 05/07/2017 - 21:06:

td's picture

my wife and I were at the empress lily in the fall of 1980. she was beautiful!

I distinctly remember 2 things...... there was a live gator in the water right by the entrance gangplank that startled the mouse turds right out of us. it was also my first restaurant where a waiter used a "crumber" to clean our table.

pure 1800's elegance !

Rick K. wrote on Tue, 06/27/2017 - 20:19:

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I will always remember it as the Empress Lilly. That's what Walt wanted it to be and that's what it remains as far as I am concerned. I dined there once but haven't been back since it changed hands. Now, I just think of it as another seafood place.

MAC wrote on Mon, 07/10/2017 - 23:17:

MAC's picture

Just learned about the changes to my beloved Empress Lilly, and they're not welcome. I'll never forget the amazing battered shrimp at the Captain's Table, or all the night spent grooving to jazz down in the lounge. Thomas Wolfe was right; you can't go home again.

Donnie wrote on Mon, 10/02/2017 - 22:37:

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May family remembers The Empress Lilly, her paddle wheel and the smoke stacks. A great place with many sweet memories.

Dan wrote on Fri, 02/09/2018 - 14:07:

Dan's picture

Did a character breakfast with my wife and two daughters in 1984. My wife's parents were with us. We ate in what I think was called the Fisherman's Lounge (if I remember correctly) on the fore promenade deck. Ah, those were the times...so much has changed since.

Lance wrote on Sat, 08/18/2018 - 21:15:

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Spent many a fine evening in the lounge of the Empress Lilly while stationed at Naval Base Orlando back in '78. Always had a great time there, and enjoyed lots of good food and drink (probably more than I should have!). The servers and entertainers were always so kind to us. I was sorry to read that it's no longer there in its original and pristine form. Was hoping to visit again someday soon to order another margarita (maybe two) and reminisce.

Craig wrote on Sun, 09/30/2018 - 01:36:

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My love of the empress Lilly starts in the Baton Rouge lounge. Denny Zavate and the Riverboat Rascals performed almost nightly. They were very good and a song still sticks in my head called sinkhole City USA from the sinkhole that developed in Winter Park. Their abilities were amazing on several occasions I heard battling banjos played with a banjo and a stand up bass there was no degradation in speed at the end.

My second best memory was having dinner with family on one of the grad nights all these high school seniors dressed to the nines and acting so grown up it was pretty cool.

As to why Disney did away with the empress Lilly it was simply money the Food Service Union had won a pay dispute with Disney Corporation Michael Eisner himself told the union reps they had won a battle but lost the war. It was then that the Disney restaurants started to become outside sourced.

Melvin wrote on Sat, 07/06/2019 - 05:41:

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My wife and I were on our Honeymoon in June of 1983, we had dinner on the Empress Lily and celebrated our Marriage with a toast. This was one of the best memories we had from the Honeymoon, She passed away in Dec. of 2017. We had talked about that dinner and evening so many times.

Carrie wrote on Wed, 01/15/2020 - 01:04:

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We took our sons to the Empress Lilly Breakfast with the Characters circa 1990... Had a truely memorable time in an Elegant setting....My Tango with Goofy was the best....♥♥♥

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