Checklist: Kentucky Derby Festival

Travel Lists

The folks in Louisville, Kentucky, have stretched the most famous two minutes in sports into a monthlong celebration. The Kentucky Derby, which occurs every first Saturday in May and is the first leg in the pursuit of the Triple Crown trophy, has become such a big hit with the locals, the city created an entire festival to honor the annual horse race.

With more than 70 events to choose from, the Kentucky Derby Festival kicks off two weeks before the race itself (April 18-May 1 for 2015) with the largest annual fireworks show in North America and ends with a massive Derby Eve party.

A Pegasus pin grants free entry to fest events, unless otherwise noted, and costs $5 (parking and participation fees not included). This doesn’t include the Derby, of course. General admission tickets to the famous few-minute horse race start at $55 and doors open to Churchill Downs at 8 a.m. May 2.

Whether you are a horse fanatic or just want to enjoy the revelry, these Kentucky Derby Fest events are the perfect precursor to the main event, but can also serve as the main event themselves.

Thunder Over Louisville, April 18

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Photo courtesy of

What started as an above average fireworks display has reached the pinnacle of pyrotechnics. In it’s 25th year, Thunder Over Louisville continues to draw millions to the banks of the Ohio River to watch the explosive show. Even though the show doesn’t start until 9:30 p.m., crowds flock to the riverbanks as early as 10 a.m. to claim their spots. We recommend getting there in the afternoon to see the Blue Angels take to the sky for a dazzling airshow before the fireworks are set off.

Waterfront Jam, April 23-May 1

Head to the Ohio Riverfront as Kroger’s Fest-a-Ville and The Chow Wagon roll into town to host the Waterfront Jam concert series. More than 30 local and regional bands and seven national acts will take the stage as festivalgoers nosh on fried-to-perfection funnel cakes washed down by lemon shake-ups. This year, Grammy-winning blues-rock band Blues Traveler will host a free concert April 25 at 9 p.m. Other notable performers include Rose Royce and the band formed at Kentucky State University, Midnight Star, who can be seen April 28 at 8 p.m.
U.S. Bank Great BalloonFest: Great Balloon Glow, April 24

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Photo by Jamie Rhodes

The Great Balloon Glow attracts around 50,000 fans annually to see branded and colorfully decorated hot air balloons inflate fully without taking flight. It may not sound exciting, but trust us; the view of the grand balloons against the backdrop of the dark night sky might be better than watching them float away.

The event begins at 9 p.m., but guests are invited to walk around the field and talk to the pilots once gates open at 6 p.m.

U.S. Bank Great BalloonFest: Great Balloon Race, April 25

If you really want to witness some air time, come back bright and early the next day for the Great Balloon Race. However, since most people are recovering from a wild pre-Derby night out at 7 a.m. on that Saturday morning, there is also a rush-hour race the day before. During your Friday morning commute, look up to see the hot air balloons floating overhead. Rush hour never looked better.
Thorntons Great Bed Races, April 27

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Photo by John Roberts

If you can’t race a horse, why not race a bed? Yes, you read correctly. Join the fun and hoist your bed onto wheels to race other cushions for bragging rights. If you’re staying at a hotel and don’t want to pay the damage fees for destroying their bed, you can still enjoy in this highly entertaining spectacle. The The 2015 Great Bed Races are being held at Broadbent Arena at the Kentucky Exposition Center where you can attend the tailgate party starting at 4 p.m., see the Parade of Beds starting at 6 p.m. and cheer on your favorite team at the 7 p.m. race.

Republic Bank Pegasus Parade, April 30

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Photo by Jamie Rhodes

Each year, Republic Bank presents the Pegasus Parade, a family-friendly event that marches 17 blocks down Broadway featuring some of the nation’s finest marching bands and popular balloon characters.
The participants cover their floats in fleur de lies and horseshoes, the bands play their own renditions of “My Old Kentucky Home” and the locals to feel a sense of hometown pride as the parade pays homage to the Derby City.

The parade starts at 5 p.m. this year, with the University of Louisville’s former quarterback and present NFL star, Teddy Bridgewater, leading the way as Grand Marshal.

Elizabeth Ann Gerber is a writer for Paste Travel and a student at the University of Georgia with an unhealthy coffee addiction.

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