LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - This year's opening ceremonies of the Kentucky Derby Festival were big but not quite the biggest ever. With the Louisville metro area having some of its best weather of the year and people looking for free entertainment during a national recession, hundreds of thousands turned out.
More than 700,000 people came out for Thunder Over Louisville on Saturday, said producer Wayne Hettinger, short of the estimated record crowd of 800,000 in 1997.
The high temperature was in the mid-70s on Saturday and the sky was clear or partly cloudy all day, which also helped keep the air show segment of the celebration on schedule.
"It went picture perfect," Hettinger said, except for one of four A-10 aircraft scheduled to perform in the show. The performance went on with three of the jets after one hit something in the air, likely a large bird, and was grounded, but did not affect the schedule.
Fans came out early Saturday and kept on coming right up to the fireworks show, scheduled to begin at 9:30 p.m. EDT. Hettinger thought at the time a new record would be set.
"We're looking over the crowd here and it continues to build for the fireworks," Hettinger said at about 8 p.m.
Sean Kuyper, 27, traveled about 180 miles from Lafayette, Ind., to arrive in Louisville at about 9:45 a.m and stake out a space at the edge of the Ohio River, right under where the fireworks would be going off. He was ready to spend the day, equipped with chairs, a grill, an umbrella, a table, cooler and storage bin.
Kuyper has been to nearly every Thunder Over Louisville since it began 20 years ago, he said.
"It's a great show," he said. "I'm getting to the point where I like both the fireworks and air show equally. Before it was just for the fireworks but now the air show is really good quality
too." Kuyper wasn't nearly the first one there, he said.
People had staked out and roped off plots on nearly every square inch of the Great Lawn by 11 a.m. Shirtless men and women in bikini tops enjoyed the early sun before clouds dotted the sky.
Daryl Arend, 53, Louisville, was enjoying a deal offered by the
Louisville Bats baseball team. A friend of a season ticket holder,
Arend was able to park in the Slugger Field lot, watch the game
between the Bats and the Indianapolis Indians, and afterward watch
the show from the ballpark, or walk to the riverfront. "For $5, I'm practically there," he said.
The crowd that was attracted by the spring weather was also expected to clog up the streets as people tried to get home.
"I can't imagine them stuffing more than 700,000 down here," Arend said.
One tactic for Thunder visitors to navigate the crowd was not to get in it.
Kuyper would stay in his spot on the river for about an hour after the fireworks and wait for the rush to subside before making his way home.
The Louisville Metro Police, with help from agencies including the FBI, National Guard and Indiana State Police, strictly regulated traffic to get people out of downtown.
Traffic flowed differently depending on which direction drivers wanted to go from downtown Louisville, which is bordered on the north and west by the Ohio River.
"The majority of traffic continues to flow south and east," Louisville Metro Police spokesman Phil Russell said."It's going to take longer to send traffic eastward than anywhere else."
Police would have an official account of arrests on Sunday, Russell said, but early reports showed about 30 arrests, for charges including disorderly conduct and alcohol intoxication, and about 700 parking tickets issued.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)