The Empress Lilly Story

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

The Disney News magazine for Fall 1977 declared:

“Twinkling lights, dancing on a placid nighttime waterfront are reflections of a new era in dining and entertainment at the Walt Disney World Village at Lake Buena Vista. The Empress Lilly has arrived! spring turned toward summer, the grand lady of the river let down her gangplanks and welcomed aboard all who had come to dine in the splendor of days past. An authentic reproduction of earlier stern-wheelers, the Empress Lilly is decorated in the grand style of those 19th century steam crafts. Stains and velvets are lovely accents to the dark mahogany and bentwood furniture and beams, brass lamps, crystal chandeliers and silk damask wall covering.”

In my collection of Walt Disney World paper memorabilia is a rectangular light tan colored flier measuring 4 inches by 6 inches with the illustration of a Mississippi steamboat that was handed out to guests with the following information:

Pardon our appearance on the shores of the Buena Vista Lagoon, but we’re under construction! The Empress Lilly Riverboat Restaurant featuring nine lounges and restaurants on three decks will launch April 1977.

Sample riverboat life aboard the Empress Lilly in
The Baton Rouge Lounge: Peanut shells, sing-alongs and an authentic Dixieland jazz band make this turn-of-the-century show bar the liveliest nightspot this side of the Ol’ Missisip!

The Starboard Lounge: Silent launches from The Village slowly ease alongside, providing the only access to this most exclusive, secluded Victorian “sitting room” lounge.

The Steerman’s Quarters: Passengers dine on hearty steaks and Seamen’s Ale as the huge picture window gives them full view of the churning paddlewheel.

The Promenade Lounge: Ascending the Grand Staircase, passengers come upon the Promenade; adorned with antique brass hurricane lamps, this room serves as the Empress Lilly’s parlor.

The Fisherman’s Deck: Hanging bronze lamps lend a golden glow to the oval windows as fresh seafood from Florida and beyond is served in a two-tiered dining room.

The Empress Room: A return to the grandeur of the 19th century: Master chefs patiently prepare an exclusive gourmet menu to be served French-style ‘midst a quiet setting of Maria Theresa chandeliers and Louise XV furnishings.

The Empress Lounge: Empress Room guests sip their after-dinner Coffee Flambe here, surrounded by red mahogany and a magnificent view of the shimmering moonlit waters.

The Captain’s Table: Traditionally, a setting of utmost distinction. At the Empress Lilly’s Captain’s Table, private groups may dine on whatever banquet feast their hearts’ desire.

The Texas Deck Lounge: Round “tub” chairs, detailed scrollwork and a third-level view give distinction to the private riverboat receptions held in this spacious lounge.

I regret that I never got to eat on the Empress Lilly nor visit Lake Buena Vista Village. However, a smile and a look of nostalgic warmth always fill the faces of those people who tell me about their experiences at that location.

One of the phrases I continually hear from Walt Disney World cast members, especially from those with a decade or more time with the company is “This is not the same company I joined” referring primarily to the fact that the management philosophy and processes have changed drastically over the years.

However, it is also true that the Walt Disney World property itself has physically changed, as well, over the years and not always for the better. For instance, the Downtown Disney area used to be very different than what it is today.

In 1974, just a few years after the opening of the Magic Kingdom, the Disney Company built a collection of vacation villas, tree house villas, and a golf course that became the Disney Village Resort. The area would later evolve into the Disney Institute and now the Disney Vacation Club's Disney's Saratoga Springs Resort and Spa.

Black Lake—that still borders the Preview Center building, which is now the home of the Amateur Athletic Union on Hotel Plaza Boulevard—was renamed Lake Buena Vista in 1969 with incorporation of that town of the same name just up the street. The canal system was widened into a large lake, called the Village Lagoon.

The name Lake Buena Vista was chosen for its Disney connection not only to the name of the film distribution company that released the Disney films but also the name of the street in Burbank where the Disney Studios and corporate offices are located. Buena Vista is Spanish for “good view.”

Right across the Village Lagoon from the Disney Village Resort was a small shopping area. When it opened on March 22, 1975, the Lake Buena Vista Village was immediately popular with guests, locals and business people as a location where they could purchase Disney merchandise and enjoy the Disney magic and quality service without having to pay to get into the Magic Kingdom or stay at one of the Disney resorts.

It was a quiet, soothing small-town atmosphere where visitors could dine and shop and be entertained. It was a charming retail community surrounding the lake with a barber, post office, art gallery, pottery shop, candle shop, and pharmacy, as well as other simple businesses. Eventually it was renamed the Disney Village Marketplace and then it became the Downtown Disney Marketplace.

Some of the original businesses became higher end retail locations in the first few years. The post office was relocated to the first original structure in that area, the Walt Disney World Preview Center on Preview Boulevard (now Hotel Plaza Boulevard), and it served as the Walt Disney World Village Reception Center offering check-in services for the Village Resort as well as postal services.

The Village had four places to eat: Lite Bite, Heidelberger’s Deli, The Village Restaurant and Captain Jack’s (named after Disney Legend Jack Lindquist) but guests could also take a boat from Cruise Dock West to the Lake Buena Vista Club, where they could enjoy breakfast, lunch, and brunch, as well as French cooking at night.

The first hotels in Lake Buena Vista opened in 1972 and early 1973. The Dutch Inn (October 1972), Royal Inn (October 72), Travelodge (November 1972), and Howard Johnson Hotel (February 1973) formed the Motor Inn Plaza, which later became the Hotel Plaza. These hotels were not owned by the Disney Company and were the forerunners for the “Good Neighbor Hotels” that now occupy Hotel Plaza Boulevard leading into the Downtown Disney area.

The Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village became The Walt Disney World Village at Lake Buena Vista in 1977

Heralding that change was the introduction of the Empress Lilly that officially opened on May 1, 1977. At that time, none of the other steamships on Walt Disney World property were named after a woman. This ship was named after Walt Disney’s widow, Lillian Bounds Disney, who was there on opening day alongside Donn Tatum and the WDW Ambassador to christen her namesake.

However, the Empress Lilly was not a boat at all despite the fact that her paddlewheel churned constantly in the early days as if she were ready to steam out of port, but a building built to resemble a boat anchored on a submerged concrete foundation. At 220 feet long by 62 feet wide, she was more than twice the size of the steamboats at the Magic Kingdom.

The Lilly became home to the first Walt Disney World character breakfasts. “Join Mickey, Minnie and their friends aboard the Empress Lilly Riverboat every morning for a delicious breakfast” proclaimed the flier. Kids who attended received a 18-inch-long felt pennant (with a smiling Mickey and Minnie walking away from the Empress Lilly) or a certificate. The cost of a character breakfast, even with tax, was less than $10. There were special cups with the face of Mickey Mouse wearing an Empress Lilly skipper’s cap and the lettering “Empress Lilly Character Breakfast.”

The upscale Empress Lounge featured a live harpist, a tradition carried on at Victoria & Albert’s at the Grand Floridian. The Empress Room was elegantly decorated in the style of Louis XV and men were required to wear ties and jackets to dine there just as they are today at Victoria & Albert’s. Reservations were often made weeks in advance and guests entered through a private entrance where they discovered gold wallpaper and platinum prices for an elegant menu created by an award-winning chef.

A more raucous time was had at the full bar in the Baton Rouge Lounge that featured "Fast Eddie" Erickson, Bill Dendle, Mike Gentry, Randy Morris, Ralf Reynolds, John Charles and Denny Zavett providing comedy and Dixieland jazz as the “Riverboat Rascals” show band. The room's décor was primarily red, a visual play on the lounge's name, with the same red carpet that covered the floor of the special Lillian VIP car on the Disneyland Railroad.

Above the Baton Rouge, was the Fisherman's Deck restaurant specializing in fresh fish caught daily. For those who preferred meat there was the Steerman’s Quarters steakhouse restaurant with its well remembered angus beef offerings (as well as lamb and veal) while guests could look out the window at the giant churning paddlewheel. Guests understood the pun that while “steerman” refers to the crew that steer the ship, it could also be a reference to those people who worked with beef cattle or steers.

On the third floor was the Captain’s Table. Inside this private banquet hall, there was literally a 24-foot long parquet table, imported from New Orleans Square at Disneyland, which seated up to 20 guests.

During an interview in 1982, Dick Nunis revealed that the area near the Empress Lilly was to be expanded into a New Orleans section similar in style to Disneyland’s New Orleans Square. The buildings would house shops on the lower level and hotel rooms on the upper levels. Apparently the storyline was now that the Empress Lilly had just pulled in to the dock to unload goods and passengers at Port Orleans.

However, this was a time of turmoil for the Disney Company (Michael Eisner and Frank Wells would come on board in the next two years) and the increasing costs of building EPCOT Center drained much of the Disney Company’s resources so that expansion was never realized, although later a Port Orleans Resort was built not far away.

With the opening of Pleasure Island, the story behind the Empress Lilly changed once again. Now, it was the original home of the fabled Merriweather Adam Pleasure and his family and it had brought them to the island where Pleasure built his empire and permanent residence.

A story plaque was installed incorporating the restaurant into the Pleasure Island storyline: “The Floating Arts Palace. 1886. Originally christened The Floating Arts Palace, this vessel plied the mighty Mississippi River for 25 years. Boat fancier Merriweather Pleasure purchased it in 1911 to use as a home, guest house, and entertainment center while he began construction on Pleasure Island. In 1918, the former showboat was unmoored and transformed into a summer houseboat for steaming down the tree-lined waterways of Central Florida. In 1971 the boat was restored to her original glory and re-commissioned The Empress Lilly in honor of Mrs. Lillian Disney.”

Another plaque in front of the restaurant declared: “Lilly Plaza. 1922. Originally a turnaround for the limousines of guests visiting the Pleasure family houseboat. The plaza was remodeled for the July 4, 1937 debut of the 118 member ‘Pleasure Island Philharmonic Concert Band’, conducted by Maestro Don G. O’Vanni. The P.I.P.C.B. concerts on this site ended with a piece Mrs. Isabella Pleasure commissioned, the haunting “Fugue for Triangle, Piccolo and Steampowered Riverboat Whistle’.”

On April 22, 1995, the Empress Lilly closed her doors, and had the interior gutted in preparation for a new dining experience and a new owner, the Levy Restaurants who had signed a 20-year license to operate the location. The smokestacks, signage and paddlewheel were removed from the exterior, and on March 10, 1996, it reopened as Fulton's Crab House with new giant gaudy red neon signs to theme in to the rest of the Pleasure Island buildings.

While the promotional literature stated “Fulton’s Crab House is a rustic recreation of a 19th-century paddlewheeler,” during the change of management the smokestacks had been removed supposedly because severe rust and corrosion had made them a hazard and too expensive to replace and the paddlewheel had fallen victim to rot and once again was too expensive to replace, so despite the promotional literature, the structure did not look like a crab house nor did it have a paddlewheel.

Each dining room received a new theme and name. The Fisherman's Deck was converted into the "Constellation Room" in which a night sky was painted on the ceiling and illuminated by navigational stars. The other main restaurants were converted into the Market Room and the Industry Room. Unlike the Empress Lilly, the same menu was served in all three dining rooms.

On Saturday, November 25, 2006 a limited edition of 750 pins in the Disney pin “Remember When” series was released honoring the original Empress Lilly. Unfortunately, very few people today remember when the Downtown Disney area was a quiet friendly oasis in the world of Disney and that the Empress Lilly was perhaps the most upscale eatery on WDW property with a uniqueness and variety that hasn’t been equaled (a few of those recipes still exist at this link).

The sign on the back of the ship that proudly proclaimed “Empress Lilly, Port of Lake Buena Vista” is long gone but for those who experienced this unique dining venue the memories still bring a smile. What makes me smile is that the first WDW postcard featuring the Empress Lilly (0100-12000), an aerial view, includes for those with sharp eyes a glimpse in the bottom right hand section of some construction trucks at the bottom of the photo putting the final touches on the ship.