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Finley Hamilton, the Second Franchisee of the Hilton Chain and Developer
Responsible for Naming Orlando's I-Drive, Dies at 89

By Stephen Hudak, Orlando SentinelMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Sept. 04, 2012--The International Drive tourist strip, which entertains visitors from all over the world with its attractions, restaurants, shops and towering hotels, once was a dirt path in a palmetto thicket that was supposed to bear the developer's name.

But, as it turned out, Orange County already had a Hamilton Drive.

So Orlando lawyer-developer Finley Hamilton came up with another name for the road on which he would make his fortune -- I-Drive. He once said that he chose the name "because it sounded big and important."

Hamilton, 89, who died Saturday in California after a brief struggle with pneumonia, was important, too.

Banking on his business smarts and Walt Disney's plan to develop a theme park southwest of Orlando, Hamilton, who was born into poverty in dust bowl Oklahoma, bought 10 acres of palmetto-covered scrub in April 1968 near Interstate 4.

Two years later, he opened the Hilton Inn South, the only hotel between Disney and Orlando. But the Magic Kingdom would not open for another 17 months. At the time, even Hamilton's friends referred to the hotel in the middle of nowhere as "Finley's Folly."

While his friends ribbed him, he and a partner invested in another 28.4 acres nearby. They paid about $10,000 an acre. They would later flip the properties for as much as $200,000 an acre. "I made a lucky guess," Hamilton told the Orlando Sentinel in 2005 for a story on the history of I-Drive's entrepreneurs and developers.

But his family knew better.

"He quite enjoyed swimming against the current," said Virginia Heintzelman of Winter Park, Hamilton's wife from 1946 until 1961. "He was extremely intelligent and analytical. He also possessed tremendous foresight."

Disney later leased the hotel as a training ground for staff who would run the Contemporary Resort.

Jane Linton, 60, of Salt Lake City, the eldest of his three daughters, said, "He was always one step ahead of everyone else and he was almost always right."

A 1949 graduate of Stetson Law School, Hamilton opened a law practice in Orlando but saw a brighter future in construction, land development and the hospitality industry. He served as president of the Young Democrats of Orange County and of the Florida Hotel and Motel Associations. In the early days of tourism, his properties offered more than 1,000 hotel rooms.

He also was just the second franchisee of the prestigious Hilton chain.

Hamilton married Susan Gluyas in 1985. They met through mutual friends, but she knew about his colorful reputation.

She recalled that she had visited his residence during a "Parade of Homes" tour. He left a silk top hat and cape on the bed. She said he also had a collection of silly hats that he wore for fun. One had a lobster on top.

"He just had a flair about him," she said from their home in northern California, where they spent their summers together. The couple also lived in Winter Park. "He was a little outrageous, but also the most generous, kindhearted man I've ever known."

Hamilton annually took two-week vacations with his daughters and their families and his sister, Donna Rankin. He footed the bill. In recent years, the entourage, which grew to more than 30, included his first wife, too.

He paid for a young maid to be fitted for a glass eye. He also financially supported two aides long after they stopped working for him.

Hamilton requested that family and friends not hold a memorial service for him. Instead, his wife said, he asked that family and friends remember him by donating to the Harbor House of Central Florida or the Salvation Army.

Other survivors include daughters Marilyn Peterson of Salt Lake City and Joyce Ivancovic of Porterville, Calif.; 11 grandchildren; and 12 great-grandchildren. or 407-650-6361


(c)2012 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

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