LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) -- All the counting is done, and although the opening ceremonies of the Kentucky Derby Festival didn't break the record, approximately 700,000 people came out to watch this year's Thunder Over Louisville.
With the Louisville metro area having some of its best weather of the year and people looking for free entertainment during a national recession, the situation was perfect.
An estimated crowd of 800,000 turned out in 1997, said Thunder over Louisville producer Wayne Hettinger.
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's going picture perfect," Hettinger said. "We're nailing the time slots we had them scheduled for."
Fans came out early Saturday and kept on coming right up to the fireworks show, which started at 9:30 p.m. EDT.
"We're looking over the crowd here and it continues to build for the fireworks," Hettinger said at about 8 p.m. "It looks like we're going to match or exceed (the record) because there's wall to wall people."
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 also clogged 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.
The key for everyone to get home safely and as quickly as possible would be patience, Louisville police Lt. Doug Sweeney said earlier in the week.
"One collision could gum up the whole works," he said. "Trust us. Don't try to outsmart us.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)