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.

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

Anonymous's picture

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:

Anonymous's picture

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:

Anonymous's picture

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:

Anonymous's picture

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:

Anonymous'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:

Anonymous's picture

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:

Anonymous's picture

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.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

More information about formatting options