Family Friendly Kentucky Derby Festival

A lot of people think the Kentucky Derby is a horse race and just a horse race.  While the Derby itself is the fastest 2 minutes in sports, there’s a whole festival of events leading up to this annual competition that are pretty unique. So much so, that the Kentucky Derby Festival can easily turn into a favorite annual family vacation.

The Derby itself has been run since 1875, with stands full of spectators sipping Mint Juleps and singing My Old Kentucky Home. The festival is younger, dating back to 1956 when it began with a budget of under $700 and attracted a crowd of over 50,000. Today’s Derby Festival brings in more than 1.5 million attendees to Louisville, Kentucky and features more than 70 events over a 2 week period. www.kdf.org

Thunder Over Louisville:  The official opening ceremonies of the Derby Festival fall on Saturday, April 21 this year, and are themed “A Star-Spangled Blast.” During the day, 300-800 thousand spectators enjoy a delicious FoodFest; take in the Thunder Air Show, which features around 100 planes and is ranked among the top five shows in the US; and end the day with an exciting 30-minute fireworks display set to a soundtrack of patriotic music. This family-friendly event is free of charge but priceless in terms of fun. www.ThunderOverLouisville.org

Fest-a-Ville on the Waterfront & Chow Wagon: The annual Kentucky Derby Fest-a-Ville, sponsored by Kroger, is a fun place to take the family, as long as you remember your sun screen and drink plenty of water. The day features interactive areas for kids, traveling displays, an assortment of concessions, and diverse entertainment, from musical acts to walk-in movies. It takes place on the banks of the Ohio River at Waterfront Park, and is combined with the famous Chow Wagon event, a local favorite because of the traditional Chow Wagon food fare and nightly entertainment. Admission is given when you wear your Pegasus Pin, which can be purchased for $5 at various local stores or at the festival booth. The 2012 Fest-a-Ville takes place April 26 – May 4.  http://kdf.org/events-Krogers-Fest-a-Ville-on-the-Waterfront.html


Pegasus ParadeGreat BalloonFest:  The Great Balloon Race started back in 1973 with 11 pilots racing their hot-air balloons across the sky. Today, 50 chase balloons will take part in spectacular races on Friday and Saturday mornings, with the U.S. Bank Great Balloon Glow taking place at 9 pm on Friday, April 27. A special “Glimmer” will take place on Thursday, April 26 at 8:30 pm. All of this fun will light up the Kentucky Exposition Center’s launch field, and admission is granted when you wear your Pegasus Pin.   http://kdf.org/events-US-Bank-Kentucky-Derby-Festival-Great-BalloonFest.html

Great Steamboat Race: One of the most unique and nostalgic events of the Kentucky Derby Festival is the Great Steamboat Race, held annually on the Wednesday before the Derby. Thousands of spectators line the Ohio River shoreline and watch as The Belle of Cincinnati and the Belle of Louisville battle it out for the victory. This family favorite is free if you’re standing on the shore. If you want to go along for the ride, tickets on the Belle of Louisville will cost you $130 each, or $55 for the Belle of Cincinnati.  This year’s water war can be seen on May 2.  http://kdf.org/events-Great-Steamboat-Race.html


Pegasus Parade:  This fan and family favorite is held annually on the Thursday before the Derby, so mark your calendars for May 3.  The parade, themed “Family, Fun, and Games” this year, takes place on downtown Louisville’s main thoroughfare, drawing in crowds of over 200,000 people.  Over the years, stars such as John Wayne, Michael Landon, and William Shatner have served as Grand Marshalls. Cyndi Lauper will be the Grand Marshall this year.  Kids will love the magical floats and inflatables that ramble down the 1.7 mile parade route, as well as the marching bands, horses, and celebrities they’ll see along the way. Some areas of the parade are free and open to the public, but if you and your crew want to watch the festivities from the bleachers, you can get tickets ranging from $9 – $26. http://kdf.org/events-Republic-Bank-Pegasus-Parade.html


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  1. Great post! I have visited Louisville several times, and always find it surprising just how much the city has to offer. I have not yet attended a Derby, but, we are heading their this weekend for the Fest-a-Ville on the Waterfront & Chow Wagon! Sounds like a great time to go based on this post…

    There are also a ton of great family friendly, unique, & fun places to eat in Louisville (I’ve written about them a bunch on my blog) – like Lynn’s Paradise Cafe – which every family should check out!

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