What started as a better-than-average fireworks display has become the pinnacle of pyrotechnics. It is the nation’s largest annual fireworks event. It also is one of the top five air shows in the country. Thunder Over Louisville has made a lot of people happy, garnered international attention, entertained millions and given Greater Louisvillians something else to brag about. Thanks to the generous sponsorship of civic-minded companies like Caesars Southern Indiana, LG&E, Meijer, and UPS – Thunder continues to be THE special event that brings the community together before the first Saturday in May like no other celebration.
It was the summer of 1988 and a state park in Western Kentucky housed the Kentucky Derby Festival Board and Staff for an annual planning workshop. It was already decided to have an opening ceremony. Past Festival President Mike Berry recalls breaking into groups to work on various events. One group, led by WAVE 3 TV General Manager Guy Hempel, was charged with breaking new ground with new events. It was here that the shape of the first opening ceremonies began to form. It wasn’t yet Thunder, but it was the very first Opening Ceremonies of Derby Festival. Hettinger put together a live stage show to introduce the Festival theme song, a balloon release of about 20,000 multi-colored balloons, and daytime fireworks shells. It was held at Chow Wagon on the river. Hempel committed WAVE 3 TV to airing it live and broadcasting it live to the They’re Off! Luncheon crowd at the same time. About 10,000 folks showed up. As the fireworks were going off, it was asked if it could be done at night. “Absolutely!” he replied. The rest is history.