Thunder Over Louisville

Last updated

Thunder Over Louisville
Thunder logo.png
Founded1989;35 years ago (1989)

Thunder Over Louisville, the annual kickoff event of the Kentucky Derby Festival, is an airshow and fireworks display in Louisville, Kentucky. It is generally held each April, about two weeks before the first Saturday in May. In years where Easter Sunday falls on the usually scheduled weekend, Thunder is moved a week earlier. It is the largest annual fireworks display in North America [ citation needed ] and began as part of an opening ceremonies event in 1989 with daytime fireworks. 1990 brought the first nighttime fireworks event. It officially began in its current location along the Ohio River in 1991 with fireworks, and an annual air show was added in 1992.


Thunder generally starts in the afternoon with an air show, followed by the fireworks show starting at 9:30 pm, along with a synchronized soundtrack through PA and radio. An average of 625,000 people have attended each year since 1997, lining the banks of the Ohio River in Louisville, and across the river in Jeffersonville and Clarksville, Indiana. Some also watch from the river on boats, docked in positions auctioned off for charity. [1]

Eight 400-foot barges launch the fireworks, provided by Zambelli Fireworks Internationale, from both sides of the George Rogers Clark Memorial Bridge (Second Street Bridge), and more fireworks are launched from the bridge itself.

In the twenty-first century the estimated attendance at Thunder has usually been approximately five times that of the main attraction, the Kentucky Derby horse race at Churchill Downs.


2018 show from the upstream side of the bridge on the Indiana shore of the Ohio River Thunder over LOUISVILLE.jpg
2018 show from the upstream side of the bridge on the Indiana shore of the Ohio River

Thunder Over Louisville began as a concept at a Kentucky Derby Festival workshop in the summer of 1988, after a decision had been made to have opening ceremonies for the first time.

The first opening ceremonies were held in 1989 at the Chow Wagon on the river and broadcast live to the They're Off! Luncheon crowd at the Galt House East. Organized by multimedia producer Wayne Hettinger, owner of Visual Presentations, they featured a live stage show to introduce the festival theme song and the release of about 20,000 multicolored balloons—followed by daytime fireworks. Attendance was estimated at 10,000.

The first nighttime fireworks show was in 1990 at Cardinal Stadium (1956) in the Kentucky Exposition Center, where more than 35,000 people attended a Derby Festival opening ceremonies concert by Janie Fricke and a 4,000-shell fireworks show following a sold out Louisville Redbirds baseball game. [2] [3]

Fireworks had been used in Derby festivities since the 1960s, but the positive impact of fireworks on this concert—particularly the echoing sound—led to the firework show's name when it was held the following year over the Ohio River. [2]

In 1991 the event moved to Waterfront Park, and Zambelli Fireworks Internationale's Master Pyrotechnician Raymond M Loffredo began handling the fireworks. The Air Show began in 1992, and has featured such notable aircraft as the Harrier, the B-2 (Stealth Bomber), and the F-117 (Stealth Fighter) as well as the Apache Attack Helicopter.

The event expanded rapidly in scale and attendance; by 1996 more shells were exploded in the first minute than in the entire 1990 show. In 1997, the Air Force designated Thunder Over Louisville as one of the events for its 50th anniversary celebration. [4] More than 125 military aircraft performed that year, making it the largest combined fireworks and air show in the United States.[ citation needed ]

2018 show as seen from the Indiana side of the Ohio River Thunder Over Louisville 2018.jpg
2018 show as seen from the Indiana side of the Ohio River

The event relies heavily on corporate donations. In 2000, when Kroger pulled out after 10 years of sponsorship, the Kentucky Derby Festival was left scrambling for money. They announced the Thunder Funder program, in which individuals can make small donations. In 2006, McDonald's announced that they would be the title sponsor for Thunder Funder and donate 10 cents from the sale of every 32-ounce drink in a commemorative cup to the Derby Festival. This promotion continued until 2014. In 2015, the restaurant chain pledged $100,000 to the event. [5]

The fireworks show has grown in size and scope every year, with over 52,000 shells used in 2004, and 60,000 in 2005. [6] The fireworks show usually lasts 30 minutes. There is traditionally a 3-minute finale which organizers call by the name Gargantuan. This is usually preceded by a short break in the fireworks and an audio score of "The Colonel Bogey March" as whistled in the movie Bridge on the River Kwai, often catching first time spectators, who believe the show has ended, by surprise.

The 2007 event had a record crowd, whose size was estimated at 850,000 by the event producer. Such counts do not include thousands of people who watch from area rooftops at "Thunder parties" held by individuals with proximity advantaged addresses in downtown, Old Louisville, Portland and the Butchertown neighborhood immediately upriver from downtown, as well as river adjacent neighborhoods in the Indiana communities of Clarksville and Jeffersonville.

In 2010, a computer glitch 30 seconds before the show during a pre-recorded minute long audio countdown to the fireworks caused an 18-minute delay while the problem was troubleshooted. [7]

In 2020, Thunder Over Louisville was canceled for the first time in its history due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Kentucky Derby was postponed to September, and took place with no spectators.

The following year, fireworks were launched throughout the city to reduce crowd sizes due to COVID-19 precautions. The show was televised locally, and in-person spectators were discouraged from gathering. The same year, a boat accident occurred on the Ohio River near the Greenwood Boat Docks as a large amount of spectators attempted to view the fireworks from the river. One barge collided with a boat, killing three people. Four people were rescued from the Ohio River by barge operators.

YearThemeCorporate sponsorsAttendance (estimate)ShellsTV coverage
1991"Thunder Over Louisville" used for fireworks only.Kroger, UPS, Kool-Aid, Oscar Mayer175,000 [8] N/AWHAS
1992Celebrating KY's Bicentennial year, "Celebrate Kentucky"Kroger, Louis Rich, UPS, Kool-AidN/AWHAS
1993Derby Festival Opening Ceremonies: Thunder Over LouisvilleKroger, Louis Rich, UPS, Coca-Cola, Paramount FoodsN/AWHAS
1994"Phantom of the Opera"Kroger, Louis Rich, UPS, Coca-Cola, Paramount FoodsN/AWHAS
1995"An American Thunder"Kroger, Louis Rich, UPS, Coca-Cola, Paramount FoodsN/AWHAS
1996"A Hollywood Thunder"Kroger, Louis Rich, UPS, Coca-Cola, Tyson/Holly Farms N/AWHAS
1997"A Wild Blue Thunder: USAF 50th Anniversary"Kroger, Louis Rich, UPS, Coca-Cola, Tyson/Holly Farms800,000 [9] N/AWHAS
1998"A Thunder Fantasy"Kroger, UPS, Coca-Cola, Kraft/Oscar Mayer450,000 [10] 34,126WHAS
1999"The Best of Thunder" 10th AnniversaryKroger, UPS, Tyson/Holly Farms500,000 [10] 39,420WHAS
2000"A Millennium Thunder"Blue Chip Broadcasting, Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation, Caesars Indiana, Ford, UPS750,000 [11] 45,000WHAS
2001"A Festival Odyssey"Blue Chip Broadcasting, Caesars Indiana, Ford, UPS700,000 [12] 51,333WHAS
2002"A Stars & Stripes Thunder"Caesars Indiana, Ford, Radio One, Thorntons, Tricon, UPS600,000 [13] 51,334WHAS
2003"Centennial of Flight"Caesars Indiana, Ford, UPS, Yum! Brands 750,000 [14] Under 50,000 [15] WHAS
2004"A Broadway Thunder"Caesars Indiana, Ford, UPS700,000 [16] 52,000WAVE
2005"Thunder Rocks"Caesars Indiana, Chase, Ford, UPS300,000 [16] 60,000WAVE
2006"Thunder Country"Caesars Indiana, Chase, E.On U.S., UPS800,000 [9] N/AWLKY
2007"The Magic of Thunder"Caesars Indiana, E.ON U.S., Meijer, UPS850,000 [17] 62,000 [18] WDRB
2008"Out of This World" Horseshoe Casino and Hotel, E.ON U.S., Meijer, UPS350,00035,000+ [19] WDRB
2009"Thunder Road" Horseshoe Casino and Hotel, E.ON U.S., Meijer, UPS700,000 [17] N/AWHAS
2010"Thunder Fever" Horseshoe Casino and Hotel, E.ON U.S., Meijer, UPS700,00056,215WAVE
2011"Thunder Power" Horseshoe Southern Indiana, LG&E, Meijer, UPS300,000 [20] N/AWLKY
2012"A Star-Spangled Blast"Horseshoe Southern Indiana, LG&E, Meijer, UPS700,00050,000WDRB
2013"Thunder Vision"Horseshoe Southern Indiana, LG&E, Meijer, UPS500,00056,000+WHAS
2014"Throwback Thunder"Horseshoe Southern Indiana, LG&E, Meijer, UPS675,000 [21] 54,000+ [22] WAVE
2015"Boom with a View"Horseshoe Southern Indiana, LG&E, Meijer, UPS650,000 [23] 56,000 [24] WLKY
2016"No Strings Attached"Horseshoe Southern Indiana, KentuckyOne Health, LG&E, Meijer, UPS, Valero725,000 [25] N/AWDRB, AFN
2017"Thunder: Local and Original"Horseshoe Southern Indiana, KentuckyOne Health, LG&E, Meijer, UPS, Valero725,000 [25] N/AWHAS, AFN
2018"A Disco Thunder"Horseshoe Southern Indiana, KentuckyOne Health, LG&E, Meijer, UPS, Valero800,000 [25] N/AWLKY, AFN
2019"The Wonderful World of Thunder"Horseshoe Southern Indiana, KentuckyOne Health, LG&E, Meijer, UPS700,00060,000WAVE, AFN
2021"Illuminating Our Community" Caesars Southern Indiana, Ford, GE, LG&E, Meijer, Papa John's, UPSNoneN/AWHAS, AFN
2022"The Legend Returns: USAF 75th Anniversary" Caesars Southern Indiana, Ford, GE, Humana, LG&E, Meijer, Papa John's, UPS851,000N/AWLKY, AFN
2023"Through the Decades" Caesars Southern Indiana, Ford, GE, Humana, LG&E, Meijer, Papa John's, UPSNoneN/AWAVE, AFN
2024"A Night at the Oscars" Caesars Southern Indiana, Ford, GE, Humana, LG&E, Meijer, Papa John's, UPSTBAN/AWAVE, AFN


Due to the complexity of the event, including road closures, police presence, and technical requirements, there is no rain date for Thunder. The event has never been canceled due to weather. Officials would cancel if severe weather or lightning was imminent, and the fireworks could be delayed if heavy rain or wind was occurring at the time of the show.

In 2005, unseasonably cold weather brought a temperature of 38 at 8:30 pm, an hour before the fireworks. A brief downpour of heavy sleet cleared all but an estimated 10,000 spectators from the riverfront by fireworks time.

In 2011, temperatures in the 40s caused a much lower attendance than usual.

2018 show from the downstream side of the bridge on the Indiana shore of the Ohio River Thunder over Louisville on 2018.jpg
2018 show from the downstream side of the bridge on the Indiana shore of the Ohio River

Ohio River flooding was a concern for the 2015 event, but organizers did not let the high water cancel the festivities. It did make some traditional viewing areas inaccessible and additional safety precautions had to be taken to make the show possible. [26]

The warmest Thunder Over Louisville on record just happened in 2022 when Louisville hit a high of 87 degrees.

TV coverage

Thunder Over Louisville has been televised locally since its first year. The 2007 show was the first to be broadcast entirely in HDTV. Previously, two or three HDTV cameras supplemented the broadcast. [27] TV coverage of the fireworks received record ratings in 2006 due to cold temperatures which made many people choose to watch the show from home.

In 2005, The Kentucky Derby Festival started rotating the broadcast rights each year between 3 of the major Louisville network affiliates (WAVE-TV, WDRB, and WLKY). After airing the coverage exclusively from 1991 to 2003, WHAS-TV chose not to participate in the rotation for several years after this agreement was made. They have since entered the rotation. [28] [29] The show is traditionally rebroadcast on the 4th of July, on the U.S. military's American Forces Network. [30] [31]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Kentucky Derby</span> American stakes race for Thoroughbreds, part of the Triple Crown

The Kentucky Derby is an American Grade I stakes race run at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. The race is run by three-year-old Thoroughbreds at a distance of 1+14 miles, the first time horses in the field race that distance. Colts and geldings carry 126 pounds and fillies 121 pounds.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Louisville, Kentucky</span> Largest city in Kentucky, United States

Louisville is the most populous city in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, sixth-most populous city in the Southeast, and the 27th-most-populous city in the United States. By land area, it is the country's 24th-largest city, although by population density, it is the 265th most dense city. Louisville is the historical county seat and, since 2003, the nominal seat of Jefferson County, on the Indiana border.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">WDRB</span> Fox affiliate in Louisville, Kentucky

WDRB is a television station in Louisville, Kentucky, United States, affiliated with the Fox network. It is owned by Block Communications alongside Salem, Indiana–licensed dual CW/MyNetworkTV affiliate WBKI. The two stations share studios on West Muhammad Ali Boulevard in downtown Louisville; WDRB's transmitter is located in rural northeastern Floyd County, Indiana.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Churchill Downs</span> Thoroughbred racetrack in Louisville, Kentucky, United States

Churchill Downs is a horse racing complex located on Central Avenue in south Louisville, Kentucky, United States, famed for hosting the annual Kentucky Derby. It officially opened in 1875 and was named for Samuel Churchill, whose family was prominent in Kentucky for many years. The first Kentucky Derby, a Thoroughbred sweepstakes and part of today's horse racing Triple Crown, and the first Kentucky Oaks were held in the same year. Churchill Downs has also hosted the renowned Breeders' Cup on nine occasions, most recently on November 2 and 3, 2018.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">WHAS (AM)</span> Radio station in Louisville, Kentucky

WHAS is an AM radio station owned by iHeartMedia, Inc. and licensed to Louisville, Kentucky. Its studios are located in the Louisville enclave of Watterson Park, and the transmitter site is in Long Run, in far east Jefferson County. First licensed in July 1922, it is the oldest radio station in Kentucky.

WHAS-TV is a television station in Louisville, Kentucky, United States, affiliated with ABC. Owned by Tegna Inc., the station maintains studios on West Chestnut Street in Downtown Louisville, and its transmitter is located in rural northeastern Floyd County, Indiana.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Kentucky Derby Festival</span> Celebration held prior to the Kentucky Derby

The Kentucky Derby Festival is an annual festival held in Louisville, Kentucky, during the two weeks preceding the first Saturday in May, the day of the Kentucky Derby. The festival, Kentucky's largest single annual event, first ran from 1935 to 1937, and restarted in 1956 and includes:

<i>Belle of Louisville</i> Steamboat owned and operated by the city of Louisville, Kentucky

Belle of Louisville is a steamboat owned and operated by the city of Louisville, Kentucky, and moored at its downtown wharf next to the Riverfront Plaza/Belvedere during its annual operational period. The steamboat claims itself the "most widely traveled river steamboat in American history." Belle of Louisville's offices are aboard Mayor Andrew Broaddus, and also appears on the list of National Historic Landmarks.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Louisville Waterfront Park</span>

Louisville Waterfront Park is both a non-profit organization and an 85-acre (340,000 m2) public park adjacent to the downtown area of Louisville, Kentucky and the Ohio River. Specifically, it is adjacent to Louisville's wharf and Riverfront Plaza/Belvedere, which are situated to the west of the park. Once a wasteland of scrap yards and abandoned industrial buildings, Waterfront Park is now a vibrant green space that welcomes over 2.2 million visitors each year. Located in the park is the Big Four Bridge which connects the city of Louisville with the City of Jeffersonville, Indiana. Waterfront Park is home to some of Louisville's most exciting celebrations, such as the Fourth of July at Waterfront Park, Forecastle Festival, WFPK Waterfront Wednesdays and Thunder Over Louisville. In 2013 the park won the Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence a national design award that seeks to identify and honor places that address economic and social concerns in urban design.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Galt House</span> Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky

TheGalt House Hotel is a 25-story, 1,300-room hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, established in 1972. It is named for a nearby historic hotel erected in 1835 and demolished in 1921. The Galt House is the city's only hotel on the Ohio River.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Big Four Bridge</span> Pedestrian bridge that crosses the Ohio River at Louisville, Kentucky

The Big Four Bridge is a six-span former railroad truss bridge that crosses the Ohio River, connecting Louisville, Kentucky, and Jeffersonville, Indiana. It was completed in 1895, updated in 1929, taken out of rail service in 1968, and converted to bicycle and pedestrian use in 2014. The largest single span is 547 feet (167 m), with the entire bridge spanning 2,525 feet (770 m). It took its name from the defunct Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway, which was nicknamed the "Big Four Railroad".

<span class="mw-page-title-main">KFC Yum! Center</span> Multi-purpose indoor arena in Louisville, Kentucky, U.S.

The KFC Yum! Center is a multi-purpose indoor arena in Downtown Louisville, Kentucky, United States. It is named after the KFC restaurant chain and Yum! Brands, the parent company of KFC. Adjacent to the Ohio River waterfront, it is located on Main Street between 2nd and 3rd Streets and opened on October 10, 2010. The arena is part of a $450 million project that includes a 975-car parking structure and floodwall.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">George Rogers Clark Memorial Bridge</span> Crossing of the Ohio River between Louisville, Kentucky, and Jeffersonville, Indiana

The George Rogers Clark Memorial Bridge, known locally as the Second Street Bridge, is a four-lane cantilevered truss bridge crossing the Ohio River between Louisville, Kentucky, and Jeffersonville, Indiana, that carries US 31.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Great Steamboat Race</span> Annual steamboat race on the Ohio River

The Great Steamboat Race is an annual steamboat race, taking place the Wednesday before the first Saturday of May, three days before the Kentucky Derby, as part of the Kentucky Derby Festival. The race was first run in 1963 and it takes place on the Ohio River in the span that runs between Louisville, Kentucky and Jeffersonville, Indiana. Until 2009, the race was traditionally between the Belle of Louisville and the Delta Queen, although other steamboats have participated. Since 2009, the Delta Queen has not participated due to ownership and legal issues, and the Belle of Cincinnati has taken its place in the competition. In 2012, the Belle of Louisville and Belle of Cincinnati were joined in the race by the American Queen.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Abbey Road on the River</span> Beatles festival in the United States

Abbey Road on the River (AROTR) is a five-day, multi-staged music festival which was initially created to honor the music and spirit of the Beatles. The festival took place in Louisville, Kentucky over Memorial Day weekend but moved across the Ohio River to Jeffersonville, Indiana starting in 2017. Tribute bands, as well as internationally recognized bands, perform over the course of the festival, playing the music of the Beatles, as well as the music of other artists. Abbey Road on the River is a four-time winner of the Kentucky Travel Industry Association's Top 10 Spring Festivals.

The following is a timeline of the history of the city of Louisville, Kentucky, USA.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">2014 Kentucky Derby</span> 140th running of Kentucky Derby

The 2014 Kentucky Derby was the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby. The race was scheduled to start at 6:24 pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) on May 3, 2014, at Churchill Downs and was run as the eleventh race on a racecard with thirteen races. The race was broadcast in the United States on the NBC television network. The attendance for the race was 164,906, the second-largest after the 2012 race with 165,307 spectators. The winner was California Chrome.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Louisville City FC</span> American professional soccer team

Louisville City Football Club is an American professional soccer club based in Louisville, Kentucky. The team plays in the USL Championship, known through the 2018 season as the United Soccer League (USL), which is currently the second tier of the American soccer pyramid.

Louisville Downs was a half-mile Standardbred harness race track located in Louisville, Kentucky, United States. It opened in 1966 and held over 3,400 days of harness racing until it was sold to Churchill Downs Inc. in 1991. Louisville Downs was built and managed by William H. King, a Louisville entrepreneur and promoter, who was the first to offer wagering by phone (“Call-a-Bet”) and full card simulcast wagering to television viewers. The track is now the site of Derby City Gaming, a historical racing parlor opened in 2018.


  1. Hall, Gregory (April 23, 2005). "Boaters pay up for dockside Thunder". The Courier-Journal . p. B1.
  2. 1 2 "Thunder Over Louisville". Thunder Over Louisville. Archived from the original on May 20, 2011. Retrieved February 23, 2011.
  3. "Throwback Thursday – Thunder since 1990". The Courier-Journal. April 16, 2015.
  4. "Article View". Archived from the original on April 19, 2015. Retrieved April 17, 2015.
  5. "McDonald's pledges $100,000 to help Thunder". The Courier-Journal. February 27, 2015.
  6. Shafer, Sheldon (March 15, 2005). "New sponsor, community punch up Thunder". The Courier-Journal . p. B5.
  7. "Meet Wayne Hettinger, the man who produces Thunder". The Courier-Journal. April 11, 2014.
  8. John Belski (April 11, 2014). "Some of my favorite stories about Thunder Over Louisville". WLKY. Archived from the original on December 8, 2015. Retrieved April 19, 2015.
  9. 1 2 "Thunder rolls on the river", The Courier-Journal , April 22, 2006. Retrieved April 23, 2006.
  10. 1 2 Walfoort, Tina (April 18, 1999). "Despite cold, Thunder still thrills". The Courier-Journal . p. 1B.
  11. Coomes, Mark (April 16, 2000). "Mega-Thunder!". The Courier-Journal . p. 1B.
  12. Smith, Peter (April 22, 2001). "THUNDER: Fireworks, air". The Courier-Journal . p. 1B.
  13. Edelyn, Sheryl (April 21, 2002). "Trashy scene greets cleanup workers at Waterfront Park a day after Thunder". The Courier-Journal . p. 1B.
  14. Kenning, Chris (April 13, 2003). "Thunderous Salutes". The Courier-Journal . p. B1.
  15. An official count was not released for this show, which was scaled down due to budget reductions
  16. 1 2 Halladay, Jessie (April 24, 2005). "Cool show, cooler weather". The Courier-Journal . p. B1.
  17. 1 2 "The Courier-Journal". The Courier-Journal.
  18. Ritchie, Christa (April 21, 2007). "Counting the hours to Thunder". The Courier-Journal . Retrieved April 23, 2009.
  19. Shafer, Sheldon (February 7, 2008). "Thunder theme 'Out of This World'". The Courier-Journal .
  20. Downs, Jere (April 16, 2011). "Thunder Over Louisville's noise quieted by windy, wet chill". The Courier-Journal .
  21. "Thunder Over Louisville's 25th anniversary show draws more than 650,000 — Louisville – Louisville Business First". Louisville Business First. April 14, 2014. Archived from the original on January 12, 2016. Retrieved April 17, 2015.
  22. Erica Coghill (April 10, 2014). "Preparations in full swing for Thunder Over Louisville". WLKY. Archived from the original on April 27, 2015. Retrieved April 17, 2015.
  23. "10 arrests made during Thunder". The Courier-Journal. April 19, 2015.
  24. "The Show – Thunder Over Louisville". Archived from the original on April 16, 2015. Retrieved April 17, 2015.
  25. 1 2 3 "Number in attendance for 2016 Thunder revealed". WHAS11. Archived from the original on March 9, 2017. Retrieved April 22, 2017.
  26. "Flooding to close some Thunder viewing areas". The Courier-Journal. April 14, 2015.
  27. "WDRB plans thunderous debut for landmark HDTV broadcast". Louisville Business First. Archived from the original on April 23, 2021. Retrieved April 17, 2015.
  28. "Louisville TV Stations To Rotate Thunder Coverage". January 31, 2005. Archived from the original on April 17, 2015. Retrieved April 17, 2015.
  29. "WHAS spends months planning Thunder television broadcast". Louisville Business First. April 19, 2013. Archived from the original on January 12, 2016. Retrieved April 17, 2015.
  30. "The Courier-Journal". The Courier-Journal.
  31. "Thunder Over Louisville to be rebroadcast by AFN on July 4". Louisville Business First. Archived from the original on January 12, 2016. Retrieved April 17, 2015.