You can rail against the Kentucky Derby until your face is bluer than bluegrass – call it decadent, depraved, or possibly even overrated – but there’s no denying: the enormity of this event is impossible to escape. The race itself has hardly changed at all through the years, barring a widening of the playing field, but the fanfare surrounding it has expanded rapidly even over the last two decades. One needn’t look further than Thunder over Louisville for proof of the Derby Festival’s growth spurt – what was once a modest, cheerful fireworks show capping off the two-week countdown to the fastest two minutes in sports has transformed since 1990 into the largest annual pyrotechnics display in all of North America.
Yes, Thunder is certainly impressive, with its booming explosives and breathtaking air show, but attending an event that attracts almost 500,000 spectators every year sounds to most like a logistical nightmare. Here you can find a host of guidelines and details that may serve to streamline your Thunder experience.
- Thunder over Louisville 2012 is themed "Star-Spangled Blast," and will be held this Saturday, April 21.
- The Air Show starts at 3 p.m.
- The Fireworks will run from 9:30 p.m. to roughly 10 p.m.
- The show will not be canceled for rain, so be sure to keep an eye on the weather in the days leading up to the event.
- The Thunder celebration lasts almost all day, so be wary of the change in temperature from morning to evening and consider bringing layers of clothing.
- You’ll need your Pegasus Pin for the Chow Wagon and Waterfront Park’s North Great Lawn.
- If you have a portable radio or radio app on your smartphone, you can tune into complete air show commentary on Lite 106.9 WVEZ.
If you want to work up to Thunder gradually, the Derby Festival has planned a couple of appealing events for those who are “early to the party.”
- The KDF’s “They’re Off! Luncheon” will be held on Friday, April 20, from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., at the beautiful Galt House’s East Grand Ballroom. This is a perennially popular event and sells out quickly, and since James Earl Jones is the keynote speaker for the afternoon, tickets ($76 per person or $608 for a table of eight) are likely flying out the window. You’ll want to call the Kentucky Center for the Arts Ticket Office at (502)-584-7777 to snatch up a pair ASAP.
- The crowning of the Derby Festival Queen is one of the first official acts of the festival season, and it will take place this year at the Fillies’ Derby Ball , also in the East Grand Ballroom of the Galt House, on Friday evening, April 20, from 7:45 p.m. to around midnight. Tickets to this black-tie affair run from $175 per person to $350 per couple.
Before planning a route to the event, Thunder-goers should first be aware that the Derby Festival will be closing the Clark Memorial/Second Street Bridge in preparation for Thunder. Metro Police will release their event-specific traffic plan at a press conference on Tuesday, April 17. In the meantime, the hours for the closures are as follows:
- On Thursday, April 19, the bridge will be closed from 9:30 a.m. to midnight.
- On Friday, April 20, and Saturday, April 21, it will be closed all day.
- On Sunday, April 22, it will be closed from midnight to 2 p.m.
The LMPD is also very specific about is and is not permitted within Waterfront Park and the event area (this area being defined as “north of Main to the Ohio River, bounded by Clay and 8th Streets”):
- No tents, stakes, tape bikes, skates, skateboard, glass bottles, or pets are allowed anywhere in the event area as described above. Note that patrons can bike or board to the event venue, but in order to ensure safety in the expected large crowds they will be asked to carry them or check them at the bike valet (located at the northeast corner of Witherspoon Street and Preston Street across from Slugger Field, and open from noon to 11 p.m.).
- Canopies or tents of any kind are also prohibited, as they can damage the underground irrigation system, and will be required to be taken down if erected. Needless to say, no overnight camping will be allowed.
- No food or drink will be allowed in the Thunder Chow Wagon.
- Picnic baskets, plastic bottles, blankets, and lawn chairs are welcome; all parcels, however, will be subject to police search.
All personal items – coolers, camping gear, tarps, chairs, etc. – left unattended overnight in the event venue will be considered “abandoned” and removed, including camping gear, coolers, tarps, and chairs.
Arrive as early as you can and park as far away from the event area as you can comfortably walk, since exiting traffic will be extremely heavy. There are areas where no parking is permitted, and a list is available on Metro Police’s website , as are some helpful tips on where to park to access the quickest route out of the event area according to the direction you are headed. Parking Authority of River City (P.A.R.C.) lots and Riverside Garages in the area are also accessible until full for a special event rate. You can call P.A.R.C. at (502)-587-PARK and Riverside at (502)-584-2459 for garage and lot locations.
Perhaps the easiest way to get to Thunder is via TARC. Their buses offer several committed routes for visitors, and the entire Thunder Day schedule, as well as a map of boarding locations, is on TARC’s website . The regular one-way fare of $1.50 will be in effect, and tickets and passes will also be accepted. Look for yellow signs for post-event boarding, which will be restricted to five locations, all within blocks of the waterfront. Buses will operate until 11:30 p.m. at those locations, which are posted on the map on the TARC website mentioned above.
Part of Thunder’s appeal is the fact that it’s so enormous and as such can be seen from almost anywhere on either bank of the Ohio River. The fireworks themselves can even be seen from some of Louisville’s fantastic parks and the hills of the neighboring Highlands, but if you want to taste the true “Thunder experience,” you’ll want a good view of the Second Street Bridge, which provides the backdrop to the famous the coup de grace, the “fireworks waterfall.”
Many choose to achieve this by staking out a spot in Waterfront Park, which is open to the public and outfitted with plenty of vending machines and port-a-potties (endearingly, if not inelegantly named “Thunder Pots”). You can bring food with you to this area if you’d rather not pay for a meal, as well as your own toilet paper (which is strongly encouraged). The North Great Lawn opens at 9 a.m., and admission is free with a 2012 Pegasus Pin. The prospect from the Indiana side of the river is just as dazzling, but much of the expanse is private property. In addition, crowds are expected to be sizeable between the Clark and Kennedy Bridges, and though more areas have been opened to visitors between Fort and Pearl Streets just east of the Kennedy Bridge, space will most likely be scarce. Those who want a Hoosier view are therefore advised to purchase a ticket to one of the restaurant or hotel parties along the riverfront.
The Derby Festival Chow Wagon, which remains open throughout the Kentucky Derby Festival, will welcome visitors at noon for free, as long as they’re wearing a Pegasus Pin, and remain open throughout the day. Entertainment will run between the air show and the fireworks on the Miller Lite Talent Stage, and in addition to the great food (funnel cakes, elephant ears, and a variety of ethnic options) and beverages, the Chow Wagon will also provide commentators for the fireworks and a music soundtrack over its Thunder Sound System.
If you’re not keen on joining the masses along the waterfront, there are a few more options for watching the works:
- The Kentucky Derby Festival is also hosting what it calls “Boomtown”  this year. This Thunder party at the Tumbleweed on River Road, which is completely free of charge, is held on its outdoor patio with an unbeatable view of the river. Also available will be a “fun zone” for the younger crowd, purchasable food and drinks, restroom facilities, and a sound system broadcasting the official Thunder soundtrack. Be there at 11 a.m. to save your seats.
- “River Bash”  is being held at the KFC Yum! Center, just a few blocks from Waterfront Park on River Road. Not only will you have the option of celebrating Thunder in a covered area, but you’ll enjoy concessions, a cash bar, and live entertainment from local rockers the Louisville Crashers, all for only $10. Doors open at 1 p.m., and you can make reservations by calling Yum! Center Premium Services at (502)-367-5059.
- The Kentucky Center  will open its doors at 2 p.m. to visitors wanting to avoid long lines and enjoy air conditioning, as well as a variety of activities for the kids and drinks on tap at the Beer Garden. $40 will buy you a ticket if you're an adult; kids' tickets cost $20.
- Louisville's Slugger Field  also boasts one of the best views of the fireworks extravaganza, and with a single ticket to the stadium, you will be able to enjoy a reserved seat for the entire Thunder line-up, a baseball game (Louisville Bats vs. Indianapolis Indians), and post-game concert featuring Journey tribute band "Journey Unauthorized." Slugger Field opens on Saturday at noon, and seats run from $20 to $50.
- The Louisville Science Center's "Thunder in the Dome"  is a unique opportunity to see Thunder on an exceptional HD screen with complete surround sound. From 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., families can enjoy a picnic dinner and free planetarium show, after which they can choose to stay and watch Thunder under the dome or take a TARC shuttle to the waterfront directly from the Science Center. Another huge perk of this option is the free parking in the Speed Art Museum garage right next door. Tickets for non-members cost $20 for children ages 2 through 12 and $50 for adults, while family tickets cost $125 and cover two adults and two children.
- Do you still feel as though you're not quite close enough to the action on the banks of the Ohio? Board the Belle of Louisville at 2:30 p.m., right before the air show kicks off, and stay through the festivities as you cruise over placid river waves. You'll have access to a full dinner buffet, cash concessions, a cash bar, and even late-night desert. The same options are available on her sister boat, the Spirit of Jefferson, with the addition of hors d'oeuvres. Tickets to board the Belle are $140; the Spirit of Jefferson costs $175.
- On the Indiana side of the Ohio, you can enjoy dinner and a show at several of the fine dining establishments along the river. The Bristol Bar and Grille will be offering seats ranging from $130 to $180 per person, depending on quality of view. Buckhead Mountain Grill is selling tickets, which include a meal and non-alcoholic beverages, for $180, and Kingfish is charging $80 for access to its glorious seafood buffet and space in its public tent.
The fireworks are expected to last a half-hour, but by then, the party will just be starting. The Derby Festival Chow Wagon is open until 11 p.m., which may be a good refuge for visitors hoping to wait a while before venturing into the traffic fray. Fourth Street Live!, which is mere blocks from Waterfront Park, will be hosting its own Thunder “After-Glow Party” starting at 10 p.m. DJ K-Dogg will be on the Live! stage and various establishments in the area will be offering their own specials throughout the night. You can return every night from Thursday, April 26, to Tuesday, May 1, after each event at Kroger’s Fest-a-Ville on the Waterfront to enjoy the same specials. Best of all, After-Glow and every KDF after-party is free with a Pegasus Pin.
For native Louisvillians, attending Thunder over Louisville has become something of a rite of passage. Its economic impact alone reflects its significance in our hometown: despite the $1 million required to fund Thunder, it rakes in $31 million for what is essentially a single day of festivities. More importantly, local landmarks like the Galt House, the Belle of Louisville, and the Kentucky Center for the Arts, and myriad local small businesses benefit enormously from Thunder’s publicity. In this stressful economic climate, it also serves to employ hundreds of people seeking part-time work. From its spectacular fireworks, world-class air show, and celebrity cameos to its lasting impact on our fair city, what’s not to like about Thunder?