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.
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.
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.
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!