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Thunder Over Louisville returns to the waterfront

A family sets up lawn chairs and blankets at the Great Lawn to grab spots for Thunder Over Louisville.
Sylvia Goodman
Dustin Emmerson and his family sit out on the Great Lawn, close to where fireworks and military aircraft will soon boom overhead as part of Thunder Over Louisville.

Military aircraft filled the sky over the Ohio River ahead of Saturday night’s fireworks display at Thunder Over Louisville, launching the two-week Kentucky Derby Festival.

Thunder Over Louisville returned to the waterfront Saturday, kicking off the Kentucky Derby Festival with one of the country’s largest fireworks and aircraft spectaculars.

In a news conference Wednesday, Mayor Craig Greenberg said the event couldn’t have come at a better time to bring the Louisville community together and show the world what it has to offer.

“Right now what our city needs is to continue to be together with our loved ones, with our friends, and also to meet new people,” Greenberg said. “What we are is an amazing city.”

The theme of this year’s show is “Through the Decades,” celebrating the 30-year history of Thunder. In a last-minute addition, organizers are holding a memorial before the fireworks show at around 9 p.m. in honor of the recent victims of mass shootings and gun violence in Louisville.

Aircraft produced ear-shattering sonic booms that shook windows during the annual air show earlier in the day, and the massive fireworks display is set to explode as night falls over the city. Although the forecast looked grim earlier in the week, Saturday was mostly sunny with a few clouds, meaning the aircraft could show off more of their range.

Greg and Melissa Joza were two of the thousands of spectators drawn to the annual extravaganza. They learned about Thunder on the Discovery Channel in the ‘90s, when they were living in Chicago. They decided to make the drive and have come back every year since. Now they live in Atlanta, but both agreed it’s worth the six-hour trip.

“This air show is so phenomenal. It's breathtaking with the military jets, the fireworks along the bridge,” Greg said.

Locals camped out Saturday morning in Waterfront Park to get front-row seats to the show. Dustin Emmerson, who grew up in Louisville but now lives out near Elizabethtown, said he looks forward to coming every year with his family and has been attending Thunder for 26 years. He and his family — mom, dad, wife, siblings, and nieces and nephews — came to set up their sun shelters and lawn chairs at around 11 a.m.

Carnival rides and family-friendly activities were scattered across the park in the “Thunder on the Ground” area. The Chow Wagon featured food trucks and other confections, and local vendors showed off their wares nearby.

Jailin Hargrove, 9, said the Ali Baba, a swinging pendulum ride, was his favorite as he munched on a deep-fried candy bar. Jailin said his favorite part of the day is the air show and watching the jets boom above his head.

Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Richmond, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.

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