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Thunder Over Louisville: Largest Firework Show in the United States and Kickoff for the Kentucky Derby Festival

Get Matt's inside perspective on the largest fireworks show in the U.S.!

Bourbon! Horse Racing! Kentucky Fried Chicken!

That’s what comes to most people’s mind when I mention Kentucky, but there is actually more. Louisville is the home of the largest and most spectacular firework show in the nation: “Thunder Over Louisville.”

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Every year this event kicks off the official two-week celebration of The Kentucky Derby Festival. Thunder brings an average of 500,000 spectators each year to see four 100-foot barges blast off a 30-minute firework display along with a 100-plane air show and a skydiving team. They gather on the banks of the Ohio River, watch from boats, and stand on rooftops to gaze at this amazing show consisting of 60 tons of fireworks.

The barges are placed on both sides of the George Rogers Clark Memorial Bridge in Kentucky and Indiana and on the one-mile bridge itself, creating a waterfall effect thanks to Zambelli Fireworks Internationale. This intricate display of pyrotechnics is ignited by the press of a button by a selected person known as a “Thundernator.”

In 2001 the Thundernators chosen were the nation’s first two successful hand transplant surgery recipients. Matthew Scott and Jerry Fisher together pressed the button to kick off the 2001 festivities. They both received their surgery in Louisville and ironically both lost their hands in a firework accident. There was also a Thundernator by the name of Matt Marks aka “Thunder Boy” who donated $3.00 of his allowance when Thunder Over Louisville was in financial trouble.

Along with the show there is a soundtrack that is synchronized with the exploding shells. A variety of music is played trying to tap into every type of music enthusiast. My personal favorite is when “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd is played simply because the show is in Louisville and the nearest city in Alabama is about 300 miles away. Thunder over Louisville has a different theme every year. Past themes have been “Phantom of the Opera” in 1994, "Celebrate Kentucky" which was Kentucky’s bicentennial birthday in 1992, and “A Millennium Thunder” in the year 2000.

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If you go, here is some advice based on my past experiences:

Pegasus Pin: If you plan to attend the show admission is free if you buy a “Pegasus Pin” which will cost about $5.00. I know that is not exactly free but the pin will also get you into other Kentucky Derby events. You can purchase them at grocery stores, gas stations, or just buy one at the Thunder entrance.

Skateboard/Bicycle: Traffic is horrifying especially when Thunder is over. There are hundreds of thousands of people trying to arrive or leave at the same time. Parking in a neighborhood a few miles away from the event and finding an alternate form of transportation is the best way to get around. The city provides free bike parking and locking up to a parking meter or anything else is fine. A skateboard is also another practical way to get around. You can take it into the event with you and use it to shield yourself from drunks.

Food and Beer: You will not go hungry at Thunder Over Louisville. There is plenty of food ranging from hamburgers, hotdogs, elephant ears, cotton candy, and many other carnival-type options along with kegs of beer to wash it down. However, the food is kind of pricey and if you are on a budget I suggest you eat before and “Ho-Bo Joe” a pint of Kentucky Bourbon inside. You can also purchase street food and beer in the surrounding neighborhoods on your way to and from the event. The locals take advantage of the thousands of people that invade their neighborhoods each year and set up make-shift food and soda stands, and yes there is beer underneath those sodas for sale, just ask. But don’t get caught, Louisville has a strict open container law, and sneaking alcohol into the event is prohibited.

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Go to a Party: There are plenty of parties and barbeques celebrating in the surrounding neighborhoods. People are very friendly this time of year and will usually just invite you in off of the streets. Sometimes I skip going down to the waterfront altogether and just go to a party. I have just as much fun and can usually get on top of a roof and enjoy the show.

If you live in or plan to visit Kentucky try to attend Thunder Over Louisville. Remember this is only one of the many events celebrating the Kentucky Derby!

Thunder Over Louisville Information

  • Thunder Over Louisville
    Kentucky Derby Festival is a 2-week long community-wide celebration of more than 70 events celebrating the Kentucky Derby.

Questions & Answers

Question: What date is the Thunder Over Louisville fireworks show in 2019?

Answer: It's on Saturday, April 13, 2019.