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The post-Christmas origin of character dining at Walt Disney World

Jim Hill

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The post-Christmas origin of character dining at Walt Disney World

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It's one of those must-do aspects of a Walt Disney World vacation. Especially if you've got young kids. Character dining. That pricey breakfast, lunch or dinner which is periodically interrupted as Disney characters come by your table, pose for pictures and sign autographs.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Given that character dining is such a hugely popular - more importantly, profitable -- component  of the WDW vacation experience nowadays (Don't believe me? Then just check out those lines of Guests outside of the Crystal Palace at the Magic Kingdom, Akershus Royal Banquet Hall at Epcot, Hollywood & Vine at Disney's Hollywood Studios and Tusker House Restaurant at Disney's Animal Kingdom. Likewise that queue of customers outside of Chef Mickey's at Disney's Contemporary Resort, the Cape May Cafe at Disney's Beach Club Resort as well as 1900 Park Fare at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa), it might surprise you to learn that the Disney World version of character dining didn't get its start inside of a theme park and/or at one of the resorts. But - rather - over at Lake Buena Vista in the shopping village.

Or - for that matter - that the first "character" which WDW visitors had the chance to dine with wasn't Mickey Mouse or Winnie the Pooh or any of the Disney Princesses. But - rather - Santa Claus.

It's kind of an interesting tale. But in order to properly reveal the origins of character dining at Walt Disney World, I must first give you a bit of backstory on that corner of the Resort which used to be known as the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

You see, back in the early 1970s, the folks in charge of Walt Disney Productions wanted to make sure that the "Florida Project" truly was an all-inclusive vacation resort. So it wasn't enough that Walt Disney World had the Magic Kingdom, three themed hotels, two championship golf courses, a campground, horseback riding, boating, water-skiing, bass fishing and the like. The WDW Resort also had to have its own stand-alone retail & dining district.

Mind you, construction of the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village didn't go forward just because the Company was looking for new & different ways to get tourists to open their wallets. No, back in the early 1970s, Mouse House managers still had hopes that they'd someday be able to deliver on Walt's last & greatest dream (i.e. pull a genuine city-of-the-future up out of the swamps of Central Florida). And by constructing some sort of commercial center out by what was then-known as Motor Inn Plaza ... Well, that seemed like kind of a smart intermediate step towards the Company's ultimate goal of building Epcot-the-city.

Still, Disney being Disney ... The Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village couldn't just resemble the mall that folks had back at home. It had to have a distinctly different take on the shopping experience. Much is the same way that a Disney theme park was distinctly different from your average regional amusement park.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Which is why - rather than go with the standard indoor mall floor plan -- the Imagineers opted instead to build WDW's retail & dining district outdoors along the shores of Lake Buena Vista. More to the point, that this complex of 32 boutique and handicraft shops would be built out of weathered wood & brick. And as shoppers wandered among these cedar-shingled structures, they could then peer in through windows and watch as old-world craftsmen cut crystal, shaped clay pots and engraved gold.

You get the idea yet? What Disney was trying to with the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village was build the anti-mall. Create a unique dining & retail experience that would not only appeal to WDW visitors but also draw in leisure shoppers from all over the Central Florida region.

That was the plan, anyway. But when the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village opened on March 22, 1975, it quickly became apparent that something was amiss. For while the Guests who were actually staying at the Dutch Resort Hotel, Howard Johnson's, The Hotel Royal Plaza and Travelodge Tower would schlep across the street from Hotel Plaza and then for check this place out ... That wasn't exactly the case for people staying at the Contemporary, the Polynesian Village, the Golf Resort and Fort Wilderness Campground. Or - for that matter - most of the day guests who were visiting the Magic Kingdom.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

In fact, the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village was capturing such a small share of WDW Resort guests and day visitors to the theme park that - in late 1975 / early 1976 - the Company commissioned a survey about this shopping & dining district. And what they discovered back then really startled them.

The biggest problem that the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village faced was that most tourists didn't link the Buena Vista name with Walt Disney World. So when they heard "Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village," these people thought that it was just another off-property attraction like SeaWorld or Church Street Station. But worse than that, those WDW Resort guests who did make a special trip over the Shopping Village to experience these artfully designed collection of boutiques & restaurants said that they wouldn't be returning anytime soon because - to be blunt - it just wasn't Disney enough.

So to quickly address these issues, the suits in Burbank first decided to change the name of WDW's dining & retail district. Which - in late 1976 / early 1977 - went from being the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village to the Walt Disney World Village. They also made sure that every new ticket book sold for the Magic Kingdom then featured an ad that urged theme park goers to " ... Visit the other side of the World ... You haven't seen the whole World until you've visited Walt Disney World Village at Lake Buena Vista. Open daily 10 to 10."

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And to counter Guest complaints that " ... this shopping village just isn't Disney enough," the Imagineers then decided to build an iconic piece of Disneyland Park and WDW's Magic Kingdom. Which was a  recreation of a three-decked Mississippi River stern-wheeler that would then be parked right along the shore of Buena Vista Lagoon. Which - the wizards of WED hoped - would become the new focal point of the shopping village.

And Disney spared no expense when it came to the construction this 150-ton vessel (which - truth be told - wasn't a steamboat at all. But - rather - a restaurant complex designed to look like a boat which then sat on this submerged concrete foundation). With two 84-foot smoke stacks, its 22-by-36-foot churning paddle wheel as well as its gingerbread railings, this steamboat - at 220 feet long by 62 feet wide - was twice the size of the paddle-wheelers which cruised around the Rivers of America at the Magic Kingdom.

And as for those " ... this shopping village isn't Disney enough" complaints ... Well, that's why the Imagineers opted to name this faux steamboat the Empress Lilly after Walt's wife, Lillian. In fact, on May 1, 1977, Lillian herself took part in the gala private christening ceremony for this new WDW restaurant complex. And as she toured this building with Donn Tatum, Mrs. Disney Truyens supposedly commented on the antique 24-foot-table inlaid parquet table that she found in the Texas Deck Lounge. Which had reportedly been chosen by Walt himself to serve as the dining table for the Disney family suite that was supposed to be built over "Pirates of the Caribbean" in Disneyland's New Orleans Square area.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And while the name change as well as the addition of the Empress Lilly did compel more WDW Guests to go visit the Walt Disney World Village, this retail & dining district still struggled to catch on with Central Floridians. So to draw even more leisure shoppers from the region, Disney was then forced to start staging all sorts of special weekend-long events down along the shore of Lake Buena. The Boat Show, The Car Show, The Festival of the Masters. Anything that Mouse House managers could think of as a possible way to lure in additional local customers in.

And given that - at least back in the mid-1970s, anyway - the weeks leading up to the holidays were an especially slow time for the Walt Disney World Resort ... Well, that's why the folks who ran WDW's shopping village began staging the "The Glory and Pageantry of Christmas" there. Which was this Renaissance-style, live Nativity scene that was staged right under the Captain's Tower right at the very heart of this shopping & dining district.

Given that we now live in an age when people will actually go to court to prevent a crèche from being placed on public property, it must seem kind of bizarre to hear that - right up until the mid-1990s - that this traditional retelling of the Christmas story was staged during the month of December right on WDW property. And the "The Glory and Pageantry of Christmas" was a pretty elaborate affair, featuring 39 cast members and live animals. Not to mention the Dickens Carolers from the Magic Kingdom, which - between scenes - performed such decidedly non-secular tunes as "O Little Town of Bethlehem," "Away in a Manger," "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" and "We Three Kings."

The finale of "The Glory and Pageantry of Christmas" living Nativity at the Walt Disney
World Village. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"The Glory and Pageantry of Christmas" became so popular with Central Floridians that there were nights where - in order to deal with the crowds - the Walt Disney World Village was forced to present three performances of this living Nativity nightly, once at 6, 7:30 & 9 p.m.

Which was great when it came to bringing nighttime shoppers into WDW Village during the month of December. But as for the early morning hours, Disney World's shopping village genuinely struggled when it came to bringing in customers. Or at least it did until one enterprising Mouse House manager decided to borrow a bit of holiday magic from the local mall.

As Disneyland president George Kalogridis recounted at his "A Word from the President" presentation at D23's Destination D: Disneyland '55 event in September of 2010, one member of the WDW Shopping Village's management team noticed that several Orlando area malls were doing extremely well with their "Have Breakfast with Santa" promotions. So why couldn't Disney stage a similar sort of event to convince shoppers to come out to Lake Buena Vista during the early morning hours?

As this image capture from "Holiday Time at Disneyland" (i.e. the "Wonderful World of
Color" episode that originally aired on December 23, 1962) proves, Walt and Santa
go way back. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

So - just as a test in December of 1977 - the Walt Disney World Village put together a "Have Breakfast with Santa" promotion. Where kids & their parents would come on board the Empress Lilly (which was completely open and available at that time of day. Given that - at this point in its operating history, anyway - this riverboat restaurant wasn't serving breakfast. It only served lunch & dinner) and enjoy some scrambled eggs, bacon and pancakes while Santa slowly worked his way around the Promenade Deck and visited with every child at every table.

To hear Kalogridis tell this story, the "Have Breakfast with Santa" promotion was a huge seasonal success. Resulting in huge foot traffic through the stores. More importantly, an overall increase in sales at the Walt Disney World Village at a time of day when this retail & dining area was usually dead.

But then December gave way to January. And as the morning foot traffic and per-store sales slumped to their usual pre-holiday levels, Walt Disney World Shopping Village managers wondered if there was a way that they could perhaps replicate the "Have Breakfast with Santa" phenomenon by - say - giving WDW Guests the chance to dine with some of their favorite Disney characters.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Which is why - in February of 1978 - the WDW Shopping Village began offering a "Have Breakfast with Snow White and Friends" event aboard the Empress Lilly. Which immediately became hugely popular with Resort visitors. So much so that - at the height of its popularity - the eventually-renamed "Breakfast a la Disney" was selling out three seatings daily.

Which is why - in order to deal with demand - Walt Disney World then began offering character dining at other venues around the Resort. Among them the Minnie's Menehune Breakfast at the Papeete Bay Veranda at the Polynesian Village and Melvin the Moose's Country Breakfast Jamboree at Fort Wilderness's Pioneer Hall. And with the success of these spin-off character breakfast events, it was only a matter of time before the Parks got involved.

And now that character dining is a standard feature at every WDW theme park and at virtually every Resort on property ... Well, to me, anyway, it just seems a little less special.

French-style service in the Louis-the-XV -themed Empress Room.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

But - then again - the entire Walt Disney World Resort has seemed like a less special place since the Empress Lilly was closed on April 22, 1995 and then gutted to make way for Fulton's Crab House ... If you ever got the chance to dine in the Empress Room with its glimmering chandeliers, as the attentive staff there served gourmet fare on special made-to-order china ... Well, that was an evening that you'd never ever forget.

Likewise the great Dixieland music that you used to be able to hear played nightly inside of the Baton Rouge Lounge. Or those Monday Night Huddle events. Where Tampa Bay Buccaneers players would -- every Monday evening from early September through late December - come on board the Empress Lilly riverboat restaurant and then review the previous day's football game, showing play-by-play films as well as responding to questions from the crowd.

Yeah, the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village / Walt Disney World Village may have not been hugely successful as Walt Disney Productions officials had hoped that it would be in the mid-to-late 1970s (And one wonders what would have happened if Card Walker had ever followed through with his post-Epcot-opening plan. Which was to add a third loop to the Resort's monorail system, which would have then allowed visitors to that futuristic theme park to travel over to the Walt Disney World Village & Hotel Plaza area and then disembark for a bit of shopping & dining).

A model of the future expansion of WDW's Hotel Plaza area. Please note the proposed
monorail loop that would have not only serviced these hotels but also the Walt Disney

World Village. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Anyway ... So if you or your family has ever enjoyed a bit of character dining while vacationing at the Walt Disney World Resort, you have the managers of the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village / Walt Disney World Village to thank. Who were only looking for additional ways to make the cash registers ring at WDW's dining & retail district after the holidays when they then came up with the idea of charging Guests to eat breakfast on board the Empress Lilly with Snow White & friends.

Which seems like a suitable post-holiday story, don't you think?

Anyway ... How many of you out there also have fond memories of the Empress Lilly and/or have stories to share about memorable character encounters that you & family members may have had at a "Breakfast A La Disney" ?

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Your thoughts?

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  • Great article. This was my first Character Breakfast experience that I can remember. We visited WDW when Epcot was in its first year of operation. The Empress Lilly was close to our hotel. I even submitted pictures from this to be included in Disneyland's 50th Anniversary photo mosaics.

  • I remember the character breakfast on the Empress Lilly. It was a delicious breakfast and a happy memory.

    One point, though: I believe the Destination D: Disneyland event was in September 2010, not 2009.

    Thanks for the amazing article.

    EDITOR'S NOTE: You're right, Scott. Thanks for pointing out my error. I've just gone back into today's article and made the necessary correction.

  • Oh how I wish the monorail expansion had been executed... and I wish character dining were less prevalent within the parks themselves - the grandeur of The Crystal Palace is wasted as such.

  • I was only 9 when we did the Empress Lilly in late 1981, so my memories are of course a bit fuzzy.  In fact, it took me quite a while (not knowing the history of it all) to reconnect that Downtown Disney's shopping area was, in fact, Lake Buena Vista the whole time.  passport2dreams.blogspot.com has a number of articles about the early history of this area, both the village and the old resorts around it, few of which exist today.

  • Interesting article, Jim!  Unfortunately, the Empress Lilly was already closed by the time I first made it to the World in 1999, but I would have gladly gone there; I've never had any desire to visit Fulton's Crab House.  

    It's a shame that monorail loop was never built. IIRC, wasn't there also a proposal to build a Peoplemover system in that area?

  • Fantastic article.  One of your best!!!

    We just had lunch upstairs at Fulton's Crab House earlier this month.

    And even though the Empress Lilly has changed dramtically from its birth, it's still a great spot.

    Both our view from the upstairs dining room and our lunch were fantastic.

    I never knew the history of the building..........now I do, thanks.

  • Jim- Wasn't the first character dining the "Dinner A la Disney" at the Golf Resort hotel?


    Admittedly, from the day that the Golf Resort officially opened in December of 1973, this hotel's restaurants & shops tried all sorts of promotions & gimmicks in an effort to bring in customers that weren't actually staying at this resort (This is one of the main reasons that -- just as the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village changed its name to the Walt Disney World Village in 1977 in an effort to broaden its appeal -- the Golf Resort changed its name to the Disney Inn in February of 1986).

    But as for the Golf Resort being the first place on Disney property to stage a "Breakfast a la Disney" character dining event ... My understanding is that the Golf Resort may have been the first hotel on property to offer this opportunity to Guests staying there (And -- if I'm remembering correctly -- this character dining experience was offered in the Garden Gallery restaurant). But as for where character dining actually initially debuted on Disney World property, that has always been the Empress Lilly.

    I tried (as part of my research for this article) to establish an exact timeline for when character dining started to spread out around property. The Empress Lilly / "Breakfast with Snow White and friends" version started in February of 1978. And the Melvin the Moose Country Breakfast Jamboree and Minnie's Menehune Breakfast was up & running by early 1980. So it's likely -- given that the Golf Resort's restaurants were always so desperate for customers (I mean, think about it. Between the Guests who are already over in the Magic Kingdom and those who are out on the links, who's going to buy all of those club sandwiches and drink those Arnold Palmers) -- that they got their version of character dining going in 1979.

    Thanks for pointing that out, Andrew. That is an interesting aspect of this story that I just wasn't able to fold into my first draft.

  • Wow, what a wonderful read! Best article in a while Jim! Please keep 'em coming.

  • Thank you Jim!

    I have plenty of fond memories of those dinners and pictures as well.

  • I remember having dinner with my grandmother on The Empress Lily in 1978 (at 16 years old). I thought that it was the most special restaurant and place I had ever dined at, and remember the decor, the jazz band, and the wonderful steak I had. For some reason (perhaps the working paddle wheel), I thought we went out into the lake for the dinner, but maybe that's because I wished it was a real boat.

    I had dinner at Fulton's Crab House later in life, and was disappointed. If The Empress Lily had stayed the way it was, it could have rivaled Victoria & Albert's for a dining experience.  Thanks for the memories.

  • I remember the old days way back on my first <a href="www.babywheelsorlando.com/.../walt-disney-world-vacation.html">Disney World Vacation</a> while reading your post. Disney is still the best place for me and nothing compares the fun that I experienced in there.

  • thanks for the memories . I was a cast member aboard the Empress for 17 years and worked under george k for several years miss the boat and all the great times we had with guests and castmates alike.

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