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Kentucky Derby & The History of Thunder Over Louisville

Kentucky Derby and the history of Thunder Over Louisville

Derby is just around the corner, and for Louisville and Southern Indiana residents, that means it is time for a show at Thunder Over Louisville. 

On Saturday April 23rd crowds gathered around for the 33rd annual pre Derby fireworks and air show on the waterfront. Planes, fireworks and drones flew above the crowd in a display to celebrate the beginning of Derby season in Kentuckyana as the excitement for this year’s races grew.


So how did Thunder Over Louisville get its start, and where is it headed today?

This 33 year long tradition was thought up back in 1988 when the Kentucky Derby Festival team decided that the Derby should have an opening ceremony to go along with the festival of events before the big day. The idea came about to have a fireworks display similar to the display at the opening ceremony of the olympic games. A crowd of around 10,000 people gathered around the Chow Wagon on the River to watch the very first Kentucky Derby Opening Ceremony in 1989. There was a live performance, a multicolor balloon release and a daytime fireworks show on display, and it was all broadcast for the ‘They’re off!’ luncheon crowd at the Galt House.


After a successful couple of years, the Kentucky Derby Festival team decided they needed to go bigger, and the first night time fireworks event took place at Cardinal Stadium in 1990. The following year, the display was moved to its final kickoff location, Louisville Waterfront Park and the Zambelli Family, a world renowned fireworks company, joined the team to provide world class pyrotechnical skills. The event was becoming a huge hit, and it was decided that it needed a new, more exciting title. Thus the name Thunder Over Louisville came into being, as inspired by the movie Top Gun. 

The next year, 1992, the show’s producer, Wayne Hettinger and the team behind Thunder decided to add an air show into the mix, to keep the crowd entertained until the beginning of the fireworks display. Every year since then the air show has grown, and this year, the display consisted of more than 30 aircraft of all types, with a lineup of military and civilian aircraft. The event takes place in a Category 1 aerobatic box, a three-dimensional cube of air 3281 feet long and 1000 meters wide which serves as the performance space for the aircraft. This space allows for the showcase of several loud and fast aircraft, and provides ample space for the demo aircraft teams.

In 1994, two years after the air show became a part of the entertainment, the Kentucky Derby Festival team came up with the idea of having theme music for the event. The very first Thunder musical theme was Phantom of The Opera, and since then, themes have changed depending on what was popular in the zeitgeist of the time. Some themes have included: A Broadway Thunder, A Star-Spangled Blast and A Disco Thunder.

By 2004, the event had grown to include over 52,000 firework shells setting off for about a 30 minute show.

At the end of the show, there is about a three minute finale the producers call the Gargantuan. The producers have also become quite fond of the false ending before the actual finale which tends to excite the crowd and give the air some time to clear before the Gargantuan.

Fireworks have also been added to the Falls of The Ohio railroad Bridge and the Second Street Bridge to set off, and cascade in a sort of waterfall effect, over the bridge and into the river. In 1997, a lightning bolt hit the bridge at 1:30 am the morning of the show, which caused several fireworks set up on the bridge to set off prematurely. 


Though the years to follow have been met with many strange weather events, Thunder Over Louisville has never been canceled due to unfit weather conditions. The only time Thunder has ever been canceled, was when the 2020 COVID pandemic hit the city causing the postponement of Derby as well as several events throughout the world. 


Kentuckiana saw the return of Thunder when the spread of COVID-19 began to slow in the spring of 2021. This year, the Kentucky Derby Festival committee decided that Thunder would come back in a special way to ensure the safety of the community and to provide a sense of togetherness in a time of uncertainty and separation in the community. Thus, Thunder was held in 5 different popup locations throughout the city and the theme for the day’s event was “Illuminating our Community”. 


This year Thunder seemed to return to normal with record crowds as the city gathered to watch the event at its full capacity in its original glory. There were several new additions to the show, and one of the most exciting was the inclusion of 75 drones to illuminate the sky in a coordinated air show celebrating the 75th anniversary of the U.S. Air Force. Thunder 2022 was another record breaking weather event with temperatures said to have hit the high 80’s, which is unseasonably warm for this time of year in Kentucky. Many crowd goers must have considered a dip in Ohio after a full day of excitement.

Where to view Thunder Over Louisville?

Thunder can be viewed from both sides of the river, and crowds gather from all around the banks in Louisville and southern Indiana to see the show. Hotels around the area tend to book up the weekend of Thunder, and there are several businesses who offer their parking garages and rooftops for the best views of the show. If you are making a plan to go to Thunder, you may want to consider a hotel room or finding a friend who works downtown and has access to a parking garage. 

The years to come are promising for this event and there seems to be so much more in store for Thunder Over Louisville as it continues to grow as the most exciting pre Derby event in the city.


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