The Story Behind ‘The Empress Lilly’ at Disney World

Empress Lilly Waterfront View Feature Image
Credit: Disney

If you’ve ever visited “The Landing” at Disney Springs, you’ve more than likely observed that very impressive and stately riverboat docked permanently out on the waters of Lake Buena Vista. Most know it today as being the site for one of Disney’s most unique signature seafood restaurants—Paddlefish. But the fact remains that this riverboat replica has had an anchored presence on these waters long predating even the establishment of Disney Springs. At one time, it was incorporated into the former Pleasure Island backstory as being a restored steamboat (and temporal dwelling) of its fictional founder, Merriweather Adam Pleasure. This was Disney’s cleaver ploy to explain its preexisting presence before the latter’s formation.

Created first and foremost to be the “The Empress Lilly,” one of the most fascinating facts about this boat-like building is that it was never intended to be an actual, operational watercraft. Yet it has served many multifaceted functions over the years and remains a regal riparian wonder worth learning more about. So here it is, the long and storied history behind The Empress Lilly at Disney Springs.

Empress Lilly Up Close Vintage View

Credit: Laura Hermoza

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The Empress Lilly Emerges

The story begins back in the late 1970s. Walt Disney World Resort had only been in operation for a few short years when Walt Disney Imagineering set to work in creating an impressive waterfront edifice that was to be done in the likeness of a Louis XV-style paddle steamer. The marvelous feat was accomplished in 1976, and the new 200-foot-long, 62-foot-wide boat-like building soon became a welcome addition to the Disney World setting.

This new waterfront wonder was named “The Empress Lilly” after Walt Disney’s widow Lillian Disney. Lillian Disney even participated in the official christening ceremony for the “boat” when it premiered to the public on May 1, 1977.

The Christening of The Empress Lilly with Lillian Disney Present

Credit: The Orlando Sentinel

Waterfront Dining

Despite its impressive and authentic appearance as that of an old-fashioned anchored boat, The Empress Lilly has only ever been a brick-and-mortar building. And its reason for being created has only ever been to serve as a uniquely themed Disney dining experience out on the water.

During its tenure, The Empress Lilly simultaneously housed multiple dining locations in one. These included three table-service restaurants as well as various resident lounges. The main deck was where you could find Steerman’s Quarters—a dinner-only operation known for its certified Angus beef and large stately windows, which offered direct views looking out at the impressive paddle wheel. The Fisherman’s Deck, located on the Promenade, provided all of the satisfying seafood selections to be enjoyed on location here, while also presenting diners with stunning views overlooking Lake Buena Vista through the 180-degree windows comprising of the two-tiered dining room setup. Then, there was the Empress Room, an upscale signature dining experience with just two seating times nightly—one at 6:30 p.m. and the other at 9 p.m. Before Victoria & Albert’s Restaurant opened onsite at Disney’s Grand Floridan Resort & Spa, the Empress Lilly’s Empress Room was the ultimate epitome of elegance and grace on Walt Disney World property. It presented four-star award-winning works of culinary mastery, brought together by some of the most top-rated chefs in the business.

As far as The Empress Lilly lounge scene went, the Baton Rouge Lounge—housed on the main deck—was arguably the most popular. It was the place where Guests could delight in the live musical stylings of an authentic Dixieland Jazz band known as “the Riverboat Rascals” all while unwinding with refreshing libations at their impressive, fully stocked bar. Alternate lounging locations patrons could delight in while aboard The Empress Lilly included the somewhat secluded Starboard Lounge, the upper-level Promenade Lounge, the Empress Lounge (located off the Empress Room), and the Texas Deck Lounge, which was perfect for private reception bookings. The Captain’s Table was another great private booking area, this one capable of providing banquet feasting.

Concept Art Showing Baton Rouge Lounge

Credit: Walt Dated World

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Special Events

The Empress Lilly has always been the site of a lively scene. It was also host to various special events regularly. Their weekly “Monday Night Huddles” were especially delightful for football fans. Featured every Monday evening between the months of September and December during the 1980 season, members of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would talk with folks about the previous Sunday’s game, demonstrate play-by-plays, and answer questions from the audience. The evening would commence with an in-house airing of the Monday night game.

Did you know that The Empress Lilly was also where Guests could enjoy one of the first Character Dining engagements ever presented at Walt Disney World Resort? It came as a Character Breakfast engagement, with available seating at 9 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. The event offered many perks and boasted numerous callouts. Still, the best part of the breakfast for parents, in particular, was likely watching their children’s faces light up while attending this marvelous mealtime experience.

Young Boy Attending Character Breakfast 1984

Credit: Laura Hermoza

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Fulton’s Crab House

By the time the mid-1990s rolled around, the Walt Disney Company had begun implementing more frugal money-saving tactics. This inevitably led to increased partnering with outside businesses when necessary. Sadly, it was decided that The Empress Lilly would close all onsite operations on April 22, 1995, much to the disappointment and dismay of its most loyal fans.

As new managing partners, Levy Restaurants took over the existing space, agreeing to a 20-year contract during which time they would operate their new Fulton’s Crab House establishment. Fulton’s opened to the public on March 10, 1996, becoming a well-known seafood operation in what was then known as Downtown Disney (later Disney Springs). And while the restaurant certainly had plenty of fans, many patrons who had once enjoyed the former glory of The Empress Lilly did not approve of some of the changes that were made during the Fulton’s Crab House transition. A few of the most controversial decisions included removing the paddle wheel and smokestacks that were such a regal callout to The Empress Lilly’s presence, and the overbearing placement of what some felt was tacky signage. Then there was also that long, deep lament for the loss of myriad menu exclusives that were once such a part of The Empress Lilly’s most beloved staples. Fortunately, recipes for many of the greatest hankerings can now be found through various recipe collections, cookbooks, and online sources.

Fulton's Crab House Signage

Credit: Disney

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Fulton’s Crab House closed to the public in April 2016 to undergo a massive refurbishment and transformation into what is now known as Paddlefish. It serves as a restoration and reclamation of sorts, with even the formerly removed smokestacks and paddle wheel being reinstated—a testament to its stately grandeur as, once again, embracing a paddleboat persona.

An upscale establishment of great acclaim, Paddlefish is renowned for both its phenomenal seafood selections and signature steaks. They also present an impressive international wine list and other specialty drink features. Any occasion is a great time to come out and take in the splendor, grace, and flavors of Paddlefish, but for those who dine here on Friday and Saturday evenings specifically, do take note of the live entertainment you’ll be able to enjoy, all of which pairs perfectly with the wondrous 360-degree waterfront views.

Paddlefish Out on the Water

Credit: Paddlefish

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The Empress Lilly has undergone its fair share of changes over the years. Yet through it all, it has always managed to stay afloat and continue leading with a timeless and long-lasting legacy that will forever stand out in stately regality on Lake Buena Vista’s shimmering, surrounding waters.

About Laura

Laura Catherine aka “LC” is a writer who resides in Maryland with her family and several pets. She visits Walt Disney World whenever she can. Additionally, she is a published author of three novels, a children’s book, and has a passion for gardening.