Metro Louisville

The Kentucky Derby Festival will take on a new form this year in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Events like Thunder Over Louisville and the Pegasus Parade have attracted hundreds of thousands of people to the city for years. But in 2020, the pandemic forced organizers to cancel many of the annual celebrations, which have a local economic impact of about $128 million, according to KDF estimates.

This year, organizers are planning to move forward with the festivities, though they will look “different.”

“After our long pause of 2020, I can tell you we are ready to push play on as many events as we can for 2021,” said Derby Festival chair Judy Hess during a press conference Tuesday.

Thunder Over Louisville is set for April 17 with major changes to its format. The fireworks display and airshow usually draw large crowds to the banks of the Ohio River. But this year, people will have to watch the modified production from home.

To prevent any mass gatherings along the river, Thunder will not happen at its usual location. KDF President and CEO Matt Gibson didn’t reveal details about where the show will be produced, but more information is expected in the coming weeks as plans are finalized.

“It will be something that’s for the whole community and in the whole community,” Gibson said. “It is very safe to say that there’s no reason to get your boats out and go out on the Ohio. There’s no reason to gather at the waterfront. When we are able to do that, we will be there to do that. And that’s our intention, to get back to that model.”

Gibson said Thunder will be “city-wide,” including live components and pre-produced segments for television so viewers can “see every element as if they were on the waterfront.”

KDF announced similar changes for the Pegasus Parade, and Gibson said a new approach will “literally bring the event to the community.”

“We know we can’t have a crowd lining Broadway as we’ve done for so many years,” he said.

Virtual elements will also be added to the festival’s marathons and cycling events. The in-person components will have limited capacities and staggered start times to keep distance between participants.

Despite the many changes to the festival, Gibson said his team is working to maintain its spirit, which has made it an important part of the region’s culture.

“Although it will be different, you will still see and feel the tradition of the festival, from fireworks and hot air balloons, to bed races and steamboat racing, along with golf, running and cycling,” Gibson said. “There will still be a little bit of everything, but again, it’s going to feel different.”

Indoor KDF events will be canceled, and those who bought tickets will receive refunds. Pegasus Pins will still be available for purchase.

John Boyle covers southern Indiana communities and health for WFPL News. He is a Report for America Corps member.