The Kentucky Derby Festival is a two-week-long party before the party. Running from April 20 to May 4, the festival brings hot-air balloons, steamboat races, riverside concerts, a parade, and one of the largest fireworks shows in the world to Louisville. Admission to several events, such as the Thunder Over Louisville fireworks show, is free. You need a Pegasus Pin, good for the entire festival, to get into others. (Pins, $5, are available at many Louisville stores or online at kdf.org)
April 21 Thunder Over Louisville
The festival's official opening ceremony, this event features one of the country's largest annual aircraft and fireworks shows. It starts at 11 a.m. with a Food Fest spotlighting vendors selling local goodies at Waterfront Park and along the riverfront. Things really take off with the Thunder Airshow at 3 p.m., as more than 100 modern and vintage aircrafts and stunt teams soar over the Ohio River at the edge of downtown. Fireworks follow at 9:30 p.m., when six 100-foot-long barges lined up on both sides of the 2nd Street Bridge fire thousands of fireworks into the night sky.
Insider's Tip: The best seats for the show are at Waterfront Park or along River Road, but get there early (say, around noon) because more than 500,000 folks usually attend.
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April 26-May 4 Kroger's Fest-A-Ville
Kroger's Fest-a-Ville entails a week of music and other special activities at the Waterfront. The U.S. Bank Kentucky Derby Festival Great Balloon Glimmer kicks things off on Thursday, April 26, as several of the colorful competitors that are scheduled to take part in the hot-air balloon race on Saturday light up their burners and glow in Waterfront Park. The next week features performances by several local and national bands, activities for kids, and the running of the Derby Festival Marathon and mini Marathon.
Insider's Tip: Locals know to download a schedule from kdf.org to see what's happening before setting out for Waterfront Park, because Fest-a-Ville's entertainment and activities run from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and vary from rock bands to a mascot party for kids.
April 27-28 U.S. Bank Kentucky Derby Festival Great Balloon Glow and Race
On Friday night, head to the Kentucky Expo Center Fairgrounds to see some of the most beautiful hot-air balloons in the country glow in the dark as they prepare for the next day's race. The center's gates open at 6 p.m., and the balloons start gleaming at 9 p.m. as crews light their burners to inflate into launch position. Visitors are invited to talk to balloon pilots, get their autographs, and watch as the lighter-than-air crafts bob up and down, synchronized to music. If you don't mind getting up early on a Saturday, head to Bowman Field (2815 Taylorsville Road; flylouisville.com/bowman-field) the next morning at 7 a.m. to watch the balloons take off for the race. Using a "hare and hound" format, the race features a lead balloon, the "hare," that lands first (hopefully in a vacant field), lays a large fabric "X" on the ground as a target, and takes off again. The "hounds" follow, and the hound crew that can drop a bag of Kentucky bluegrass seed closest to the "X" without touching the ground wins the event.
May 2 Great Steamboat Race
The race for the silver antlers has been run between the Belle of Louisville and a variety of other steamboats since 1963. This year the local favorite will take on the Belle of Cincinnati and, for the first time, the American Queen, the largest steamboat ever built. It'll cost you if you want to be on a boat: $130 for the Belle of Louisville, $55 for the Belle of Cincinnati, and about $2,000 for a four-night Kentucky Derby cruise that includes the race aboard the American Queen. Most folks choose to lay out a picnic on the river-banks or find a seat at Waterfront Park to watch for free as the paddle wheelers race 14 miles from Clark Memorial Bridge to Six Mile Island and back again.
Insider's Tip: The race officially starts at 6 p.m., but the festivities really begin at 4:45, when a calliope contest begins among the vessels.
May 3 Republic Bank Pegasus Parade
The festival wraps up with dozens of marching bands, equestrian units, floats, and giant character balloons marching, trotting, floating, and rolling through downtown. One of the most popular balloons features the winged horse Pegasus, the Run for the Roses' official mascot and the high-flying mythical cousin of the speedy Thoroughbreds that will race at Churchill Downs two days later.
Insider's Tip: The parade kicks off at 5 p.m., but people start saving spots along Broadway around noon to get the best views. If you're willing to pay, you can get a reserved spot on bleachers, chairs, or at a review stand across the street from the WAVE 3 television station ($9 bleacher seats, $11 chairs, $26 review stand seats; visit kdf.org, or call 502/584-3378 to order).