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.

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

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.

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.

Though the lights still twinkle and glimmer, reflecting off the water at night, it's lost the romance of the Mississippi in an era gone by. I'm always a little wistful when I see Fulton's today. Though our forum members tell me the food is respectable, and the atmosphere still enjoyable at Fulton's Crab House - I always remember the Empress Lily.

Fulton's Crab House TodayFulton's Crab House Today

Thanks so much to Bob Rowan and Lorraine Paulhus 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:

Anonymous'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:

Anonymous's picture

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.

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