Secrets of the Walt Disney World Empress Lilly

Written by George Taylor. Posted in Disney History, Imaginerding, Walt Disney World

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Published on July 29, 2012 at 10:13 pm with 15 Comments

In the mid-1970s, Walt Disney World was working to come out of the slumps that paralyzed the travel industry. Various Phase II hotels were scrapped and new ideas were brought to the table. In line with Walt’s vision for EPCOT Center, WDW management developed the Lake Buena Vista Resort Community that consisted of a large hotel/resort area, a shopping village and a business center. The Disney Village (now part of the Downtown Disney complex) opened on March 22, 1975. It was an eclectic mix of shops and eateries that seemed to go against the trend of boxy and concrete shopping malls.

In November, 1975, one of the major Phase II developments of Lake Buena Vista was a yet unnamed riverboat-styled restaurant. Construction was to begin in April of 1976 and expected to take 18 months. The general description of the restaurant stayed fairly true to what was built.

The exterior will be heavily decorated in mahogany and brass. The stem paddle will turn as an additional show factor for guests strolling on the decks and dining in the restaurants.

The Baton Rouge

At the bow of the main deck is a show bar. Decor will be turn-of-the-century, Bourbon Street- style with a mahogany bar, wood planked floors and stained glass.

This concept artwork was captioned as the Empress Room, but would appear to actually be the Baton Rouge Lounge.

At the stem of the main deck will be a steakhouse restaurant. It will carry the same turn-of-the-century decor with a dominance of mahogany, burgundy colors and leaded glass…and offer the guests a view of the paddlewheel and the lagoon.

Next up is a description of what is to become the Empress Room:

The second (or “promenade”) deck will feature a seafood restaurant at the bow and an elegant gourmet restaurant at the stern. Decorated in Louis XV motif, the gourmet restaurant will contain a raised dome ceiling with a large chandelier, etched glass panels between banquettes (booths), silk or damask wall coverings, sculpted wall moldings and details of off-white and gold. There will also be an exclusive entry to this dining room from the dock via a gangplank.

Although captioned as the Baton Rouge Lounge in the article, it must be the Empress Room based on the description.

On the third or “Texas” deck is a dining area suitable for banquets and private parties and a lounge.

Other elements of the boat include two waiting lounges and the ‘quiet lounge’…an intimate cocktail area.

As the year went on, Disney occasionally updated the cast members on the construction of the riverboat. By May, 1976 the riverboat was officially named the Empress Lilly as construction began. The Edward Nezelek Company of Fort Lauderdale was named General Contractor for construction and the opening date was set for April 1977.

Disney reminded cast members that although the Empress Lilly is a building on a concrete base made to look like a boat, down to every last detail, they should still be mindful not to ruin the illusion.

So, if someone asks you about sailing times or cruise destinations, please don’t ruin the illusion by stating that the boat is concrete and cannot move from her foundation. Tell the guest that the Empress Lilly is permanently moored at Lake Buena Vista and that the size and depth of the lagoon, waterways, etc., will not permit the boat to be sailed to the Magic Kingdom, Fort Wilderness, Buena Vista Club, etc.

Disney also released a series of articles in Eyes and Ears that looked at the construction of the Empress Lilly. I am still a little surprised to run across these articles since Disney keeps everything so close to the vest these days.

One thing that I never thought about when I was enjoying the various watercraft while plying the waters of the Lake Buena Vista Lagoon was running into the paddle wheel of the Empress Lilly. Apparently, Disney thought this might be a problem, so they used a dolphin to address the issue of guests getting too close to the wheel while trying to take photos while boating.

I ran across a great image of the Empress Lily under construction at RetroDisneyWorld. Besides being able to see the construction wall with the yellow barrier/floats on top, there are two Bob-A-Round boats in the photo. Score!

Photo Courtesy RetroDisneyWorld.com

The restaurant finally opened on May 1, 1977. Walt Disney’s widow, Lillian Disney was on hand to christen the riverboat, which was, of course, named after her. But this is a story for another post.

Looking for a great resource on Disney history? Jeff Kurtti’s 1996 release is still the only official history of the Vacation Kingdom of the World. Let’s hope they ask Jeff to write the second 25 years, as well.

Did you ever get the chance to dine on the Empress Lilly? Do you have any great memories of the riverboat?


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ImagiNERDing is written and edited by George Taylor

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About George Taylor

George has been obsessed with Disney theme parks since the first time he saw a photo of the Haunted Mansion in the early 70s. He started writing about Disney in 2007 and has amassed one of the world's largest Disney-related libraries.

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15 Comments

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  1. [...] MiceChat [...]

  2. It has been at least 15 years since I’ve been on this boat. I remember it being a sort of magical experience. However, I haven’t been back in so long. Has anyone been recently? How is the restaurant these days?

  3. Were you there when it was still the “Empress Lilly?” Around 1995 Disney signed over operations to Levy Restaurants from Chicago, who turned it into “Fulton’s Crab House.” To me, IMO, its one of the tragedies of the post-25th Anniversary period at Walt Disney World. The paddlewheel and smokestacks were removed, the restaurant exterior painted gray and white, and tacky “Fulton’s Crab House” signage affixed to the sides. I have not been inside but hear a similar for-the-worse gut renovation took place to the interior as well.

    I read somewhere that the contract was for 20 years, so it is possible Disney could take over in 2015, but my faith in them restoring what was a beautiful centerpiece to the Village is low.

    • Thanks for the comment. Disney has used lessees before and it has always been with mixed results. I miss the character of the riverboat, but a lot of that area changed completely with the opening of Pleasure Island.

      I am surprised at the lack of photos of the interior of that space, too.

  4. I can’t compare it to what was there in the olden days. But after eating there 3 times in the past 3 years, I can say that it’s an excellenet seafood restaurant, with great food and great service!

    • I’m glad to hear that!

      Whenever Disney divests itself of its past, I am always a little saddened. This sounds like a good place to eat (as long as you like seafood, right) but people miss the old riverboat.

      Do you have a recommended dish?

  5. When I was a kid, I thought it really had traveled as a boat once, but clearly I was incorrect.

    Anyway, its one thing to turn the restaurant over to a 3rd party, that can work out good or bad..but to remove half of the theming of it being a riverboat is just plain dumb. I can’t understand WHY they would intentionally do that. Now it’s a half boat looking building.

    • ChrisFL – when I was researching the article, i ran across a lot of mentions that the paddle wheel and smokestacks had major rot issues. It was probably decided that it was easier to remove than replace.

      Were you on the boat for a character meal when you thought it was travelling? I would love to hear more about your experiences on the Empress Lilly.

      • I should have mentioned I wasn’t on the boat when I thought it was a real boat…just that my father worked for WDW in the early 80′s and I thought he told me it was a boat that traveled early on. I think I did go on it once as a kid, but I didn’t go back until after it was Fulton’s

  6. This is a great piece that brought back some terrific memories of my first ‘adult’ trip to Disney World. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that, until I read it, I thought the Empress Lilly was a real boat. My wife and I ate at the steakhouse on our honeymoon in 1982 (we were staying at the Hotel Royal Plaza) and I had the best Filet Mignon I’ve ever tasted. I can picture the bar that was either next to or part of the restaurant because they sent us there to wait for our table. I’m sorry to hear that it’s changed so drastically; I had always hoped to take my wife back there on our second honeymoon.

    • What a great story!

      I would love to hear more about your dining experiences there. Feel free to email me or leave another comment.

      Thanks!

  7. I ate there several times as a child for the character breakfasts. As I recall it was one of the only, if not the only, place on property for character meals (remember this is the late ’70s to mid ’80s, prior to this becoming a standard part of all WDW vacations). Mickey was not present as he was busy as the boat’s “Captain.” We received a certificate (which I still have some where) with some nice character artwork framing an oval image of the Empress Lilly. The food must have been good and plentiful as my father was not one to splurge on any sort of sit-down meal while at WDW.

    I heard about the rot issues on the paddlewheel, etc, so really it came down to money. I’m not one to lament every change to WDW over the years, but this is one which still bothers me. I think when the Fireworks Factory restaurant closed this space was given to Levy to take the place of the closed restaurant. Considering it was named for Walt’s wife, its too bad they couldn’t keep the name.

  8. Never ate at the resturants, but I spent TONS of time at the Baton Rouge lounge (long before turning 21) watching the Riverboat Rascals and Denny Zavett perform. They did shows in the same vain as YEha Bob does now at Port Orleans. My favorite was watching Dave (the piano player from the Rascals) lay on his back and play upside down. If I looked really hard I could probably find my 45 copy of the Rascals “Sinkhole City USA”…

    I think some of the guys still perform…
    http://www.dennyzavett.net/
    http://www.eddieerickson.com/

  9. Having worked for Bally at the Six Flag park in Saint Louis, I pretty much hated amusement parks from the get go. However, my first wife was a confirmed Disney fan, so on a two week training course in the greater Orlando area, I agreed to some limited Walt Disney World exposure.

    Having plenty of time to kill during the evenings (we were waiting to go to the parks after the training was completed), we visited the Disney Village for dinner one evening. Wanting a steak meal, we settled on the steak restaurant at the Empress Lilly.

    While waiting for our meal time to roll around, I took my then infant daughter out of the raucous bar (where we were enjoying the show) and took her around the deck of the river boat.

    Despite my prejudice against the place, I was gradually coming around to the Disney way of doing things, which was the direct opposite of the management mess that was Bally’s effort at Six Flags. Everything was so clean and so perfect, so much so that I was actively looking for a flaw, anything that was wrong.

    As we walked on the deck of the boat, I looked up and noticed that there were two adjacent white light bulbs burnt out in the row of lights outlining the Texas deck. Smug that I had at long last found a flaw in the Disney magic, we continued on our walk around the curving front of the boat and to the point where the walkway dead ended on the back side.

    We turned around and started back, worrying that we might be missing our meal inside. As we returned to the “dock” side of the boat, there were two electricians with a ladder, swapping out the dead light bulbs!

    More than that, the man on the ladder climbed down and they both moved the ladder out of our way, with one of them asking my daughter if she “had seen Mickey yet!”

    Since that day, we have visited the park on many occasions (we live in Texas), and even once ate (with my current wife) at the Empress Room (my first snails, no less). But, that attention to a detail that would have gone unaddressed for a month or more at any other resort still remains my most vivid memory of the magic that is Walt Disney World. The Swan Boats and the Empress Lilly may have both floated off into the mists of time, but the memories remain.

  10. Loved the look back at the Empress Lily history. I jumped right to the story because of the picture of the Empress under construction as it looked like it was taken about the same time I had taken one. Low and behold, when I read that it was credited to Retro Walt Disney World, I realized why it looked like the picture I had taken….because it was! Haha! Glad it ended up in a great story. I miss the “old” Empress and especially the big red paddle on the back. I understand that rot happens, but such a shame to not repair and restore the Empress to it’s original look.