Family Vacations: Kentucky Derby Festival

The Kentucky Derby Festival that precedes the famous horse race is a two- to three-week extravaganza of fireworks, parades, races, and more, and it's tailor-made for families. It begins in mid-April and sets the pace for the excitement leading up to the race. The festival's trademark daylong Thunder Over Louisville Air Show dazzles viewers with more than 100 planes, as well as aerial acrobatics teams and daring skydiving teams performing breathtaking stunts.

The Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines often get into the act, and there is a special moment when helicopters pull the largest American flag ever flown across the sky. At night, when darkness descends, the fireworks begin. Eight huge barges on the Ohio River form the stages from which the 28-minute fireworks show ignites. It's the largest annual pyrotechnic display in the country.


The Pegasus Parade is the festival's oldest event and features a spectacle of colorful floats, marching bands, giant inflatables, equestrian teams, and celebrities parading down Broadway in downtown Louisville. Two days before the parade, at an indoor venue, you can view the lavishly decorated floats and the enormous inflatables hanging from a ceiling, including the festival's winged white mascot Absolutely Pegasus.

Friendly -- and often funny -- competitions are a trademark of certain festival events. The Great Balloon Race features a colorful spectrum of hot-air balloons taking flight and racing for prizes over two days. At night during the Great Balloon Glow, the balloons are illuminated but stay tethered and blaze against the blackness of the night sky, synchronized to a special musical score. Families arrive early to picnic on the lawn. The event offers a children's area with inflatable slides and other activities.

The Great Bed Races are a festival favorite, featuring five-person teams dressed in wild and crazy costumes pushing decorated beds on wheels around a "track," competing for the fastest times and, more important, the best decorations. They're billed as the best race you can have in your pajamas. Thousands of bed-racing enthusiasts gather to cheer their favorite beds and vote for the People's Choice award, which is bestowed upon the most popular bed.

Meanwhile, the Derby Festival Waterfront Chow Wagon features a selection of delectable goodies, such as Louisiana-style bourbon chicken, Creole shrimp, and gumbo. Concerts take place nearby at Waterfront Park on the Ohio River.

Even more activities add to the fun, including a steamboat race, a mini marathon, a spelling bee, and a children's art competition. The Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs is the festival's grand finale. As the first jewel in the Triple Crown of thoroughbred racing, the Derby attracts more than 100,000 spectators each year.


Kentucky Derby Festival

Address: Kentucky Derby Festival Office at 1001 S. 3rd St., Louisville, KY

Phone: 502/584-FEST


Hours of Operation: Two-week event from mid-April - early May

Admission: Varies by event


To learn more about family vacation destinations, see:

  • Family Vacations: Learn about hundreds of family vacations in destinations all over North America.
  • Kentucky State Guide: Learn more about all the family-friendly things to do in Kentucky.



Laura Sutherland is a widely acknowledged authority on family travel and has published several books on the topic, including Best Family Ski Vacations In North America and Tropical Family Vacations.