Saturday, July 8, 2017

Remembering the Empress Lilly

By Keith Mahne

Beginning in the late 1970s, if you happened to be in Central Florida and wanted a truly special meal, there was one place to go: the Empress Lilly. For 18 years, the regally appointed ship beckoned diners with one of the finest menus at Walt Disney World. Gourmets, park lovers, romantics agreed: The Lilly – named in honor of Walt's first lady, Lillian Bounds Disney – was always a delicious experience. Join us as we remember the Empress Lilly riverboat in today's new article...

Empress Lilly concept art and construction

The date was May 1, 1977. Disney fans and dignitaries watched as the gangway for the Empress Lilly was lowered for the first time. Walt's widow was on hand to christen the ship, and many Disney VIPs, including then-CEO Donn Tatum, Imagineers, Disney fans, and cast members, gathered for the big moment.

Walt's widow, Lillian Disney, and the Disney family at the christening of the Empress Lilly, May 1, 1977

Mark Twain once observed that steamboats were so ornately decorated, so grand, that they reminded him of "floating wedding cakes." The Lilly certainly fit that description to a tee.

Although stern-wheelers were not new at Disney (Walt built the Mark Twain for Disneyland's opening in 1955), the Lilly was indeed remarkable. Impressively, she stood tall at 220 by 62 feet – more than double the size of both the Twain and the Richard F. Irvine riverboat (which was later renamed the Liberty Belle) at Walt Disney World. But despite her convincing appearance, the Empress Lilly was not an actual working ship. Imagineers ingeniously constructed her a few feet offshore, on a block of concrete. In her earlier days, the Lilly's paddle-wheel churned constantly, as if she were really plowing down the river, and the illusion was astounding...

Once you stepped inside, she was a luxurious wonder. The Empress Lilly hosted three restaurants and a lively lounge...

  •  Steerman's Quarters - located in the aft section of the main deck. It specialized in certified Angus beef entrees. The décor featured nostalgic imagery of America's western cattle. In the aft end of the room, giant windows revealed the nearby churning paddle wheel. Disney character breakfasts were held here as well.

  • Fisherman's Deck - located forward on the promenade deck and served fresh seafood while offering a beautiful view of Lake Buena Vista.

  • Empress Room – a formal dining room located aft on the Promenade Deck. Featuring Louis XIV decadence, gold-trimmed wallpaper, and Maria Theresa chandeliers, the Empress Room was the most elegant and exclusive of them all.

  • Baton Rouge Lounge - located forward on the main deck, this lively lounge had a full bar and entertainment provided by an authentic Dixieland jazz band.

On April 22, 1995, the Lilly's three framed restaurants served their last meals and the ship itself eventually found new owners and a new name, Fulton's Crab House. Along with the new owners and name, the old girl even had her smokestacks and paddle-wheel removed...

With the recent revamping and major overhaul of Downtown Disney into Disney Springs. the old riverboat theme of Fulton’s wasn’t going to flow with the new vibe of the area. And so, in early 2016, Fulton's closed for refurbishment and reopened on February 4, 2017 as Paddlefish with the paddle-wheel and smokestacks back in their rightful place...

No matter how many refurbishments and name changes she may go through, the Empress Lilly will always be a reminder of a simpler time in Disney history. A time when she was the centerpiece of Walt Disney World Village and perfectly captured the romance and grandeur of a bygone era. A time when, in the darkness of night, guests would pause to enjoy her shimmering lights as they reflected on the calm Village Lake water, where she stood surrounded by pine trees...

The Empress Lilly at dusk, 1980s

Yes, the Empress Lilly was truly something special to behold.


Keith Michael Mahne is the owner and editor of Disney Avenue and the host of the Disney Avenue Podcast. He has made countless trips to the Walt Disney World resort since his first trip in 1989 at the age of four. Keith has a strong passion and respect for Walt Disney, the parks and resorts, and the men and women who help create them. He started Disney Avenue as a way to inform and entertain readers and to repay all those who make dreams come true every day.

You can find all of Keith's articles here.


  1. My wife & I ate on the Empress Lily in the Empress Room on our honeymoon back in 1982. It was a beautiful restaurant & we remember that evening like it was yesterday . We've eaten at both Fulton's as well as Paddlefish, however while the food & service are very good nothing compares to the ambience & character the Empress Lily had. As noted above this was the end of a bygone era, but thankfully we have the memories.

  2. I'm gonna cry! Went there as a child with mom, dad and older sister. In May, my husband and I and 2 year old went with mom and dad to Paddlefish. It was hard to believe I was with our little girl eating at a restaurant I ate at when I was 4 or so. Even more memorable as my mom has cancer and has a lot of brain damage from treatment so it was special keeping the tradition alive and bringing a new generation to WDW!

  3. If next year you happen to stumble upon a certain (new and non-dystopian) sci-fi/adventure novel for kids, you'll discover a loving tribute to this grand old lady.