Kentucky Derby Festival Great Balloon Race Festival

Balloons at Kentucky Derby Festival Balloon Glow
••• Image © Mali Anderson

The Great Balloon Fest is an annual festival featuring a series of hot air balloon events. The celebration is part of the Kentucky Derby Festival, the weeks of festivities prior to the Kentucky Derby. The balloon events culminate with the Great Balloon Race. The first Great Balloon Race was held at Iroquois Park in 1973, and featured only seven balloons. However, the Great Balloon Race quickly became one of the most popular Kentucky Derby Festival events, and what was once just the Great Balloon Race is now an entire weekend festival of hot air ballooning events.

Each of these events is free with a Pegasus Pin, though you may be required to pay a parking fee.

Great Balloon Glimmer

The Great Balloon Glimmer is a smaller version of the Great Balloon Glow listed below. It is held at Waterfront Park, on the Thursday prior to the Great Balloon Race, and serves as the kick-off for the Kroger Fest-a-Ville on the Waterfront and the opening of the Chow Wagon, a downtown spot for food and entertainment during the Kentucky Derby Festival. Since it is smaller than the Great Balloon Glow, some people—families, couples, and singles—prefer it since it is much easier to enter and exit while avoiding crowds. Some professionals who work downtown have it the easiest as they can stop by after work and enjoy the glimmer before heading home.

Great Balloon Rush Hour Race

The Great Balloon Rush Hour Race is essentially the same thing as the Great Balloon Race, but the Rush Hour Race is held during the rush-hour commute on the Friday morning before the Great Balloon Race.

It is and exciting tradition, individuals who are off that day or have a late starting work time can go and watch the balloons take off and land, but even those who have to work can watch the balloons float overhead as they drive to work.

Great Balloon Glow

The Great Balloon Glow is an event held at the Kentucky Exposition Center that draws more than 50,000 people annually from Louisville and its surrounding cities and states.

Visitors to the Great Balloon Glow can speak with the balloon owners about their balloons and see them up close--something that's not possible in the limited time before takeoff on the morning of the Great Balloon Race. The main highlight of the Great Balloon Glow, however, occurs when the balloons light up and rise a little off of the ground to music, creating a beautiful landscape of glowing balloons set against the night sky. It is the spot to watch hot air balloons glimmer and glow. Families make a night of this event. Expect blankets laid out for relaxing, fair foods, and kiddie rides.

Great Balloon Race

The original and signature event of the Great Balloon Fest is the Great Balloon Race. The Great Balloon Race occurs on the Saturday before the Kentucky Derby and features dozens of colorful hot air balloons racing against the morning sky. The event occurs very early in the day, but it's definitely worth seeing at least once. It is an opportunity to see professional hot air balloon pilots at work. And, more spectacular, orbs of color floating through the Louisville sky.

Past Events

With any annual event, things change year to year. In the past there was a Great Balloon Tour, for example.

 The Great Balloon Tour was a kickoff event for the Great Balloon Fest. It was added years after the first balloon events with the first Great Balloon Tour occurring during the 2006 Kentucky Derby Festival. The Great Balloon Tour was held at a different location every year and features a short, 30-minute hot air balloon race. Will they bring it back? Who knows! Here's some more information on what to expect during the Kentucky Derby Festival Great Balloon Glow, Race and surrounding activities.

Note: Jessica Elliott's article was edited by a current expert. May, 2016.