What to Expect at Your First SDCC

This year was my first SDCC, and for a few hours on Thursday afternoon I was convinced it would be my last. I was so lucky to attend the event with my little brother Curtis from my college fraternity and his wife Celeste, who have been attendees for the last several years. I felt like I was going in extra-prepared because of their knowledge and expertise in all things Comic Con. Little did I know, there’s no way to understand it all until you actually get there. Here’s what I learned on my first trip to SDCC:

Getting a Badge

Badges for Comic Con go on sale months in advance of the convention itself through an online lottery system. I had no idea about this until Curtis told me last Fall when I mentioned being interested in going. He let me know two crucial pieces of information. First, in order to even be in the system for the lottery you had to sign up in advance for a free SDCC Member ID. These sign-ups close weeks ahead of the lottery itself, so if you snooze on getting a Member ID you’re out of luck for getting a SDCC badge.

The second thing I learned was that the lottery was no guarantee. People have been trying for YEARS to get a badge with no luck. Curtis helped to manage my expectations. He told me to be online before the lottery room opened, and just try my luck. No refreshing the page (it automatically refreshes), no logging in on multiple browsers (it will cancel your other sessions), and no way to pay a little extra to bypass the lottery. If you were lucky enough, you get in. Simple as that.

On that fateful day in April, luck happened to be on my side. Within about 45 minutes in the online waiting room my browser refreshed me into the ticket purchase page. The “Preview Night” on Wednesday had sold out, but I wasn’t after a badge for Wednesday. I just wanted the four-day badge for Thursday – Sunday and fortunately they were all still available. The price wasn’t astronomical for the badge itself, but there were no refunds and you had to pay in full at the time of purchase. If you wanted to go to SDCC, your mind needed to be made up. Mine was. I was going.

Several weeks before the convention, my badge arrived in the mail in a cool little box, along with a convention pin and a small program book with a few conference tips and rules. You won’t want to forget to pack your badge!

Side note: For returning convention attendees, there are two lottery chances. If you attended last year, there’s a pre-sale lottery similar to the one above. If you don’t make it in during that lottery, you can try your luck again a few weeks or months later during the general lottery. If it all sounds a little complicated, it is.

Hotel Registration

The next hardship you’ll endure is trying to get a hotel. SDCC pretty much takes over the entire city of San Diego, and you can only book hotels through their online system during convention days. Registered attendees enter a hotel lottery and select about 10 hotels they can preference to stay in during their time in San Diego. Two rounds of emails are then sent out with hotel placement confirmations, and a two-night deposit is due up front. Again, no refunds. Be ready to commit. If you’ve ever booked a Priceline Express Deal, imagine the stress of that multiplied by about five.

Curtis, Celeste, and I all tried our luck at entering the hotel lottery. Somehow, all three of us were not placed during the lottery. What to do!? LUCKILY I was sitting in front of my computer when the email came through of our non-placement, and I was able to enter into the free-for-all system to check and see what was leftover after all placements to secure us a room. We actually got into one of our top choice hotels, so I genuinely have no idea why we weren’t placed in either of the two placement rounds. If you’re noticing a theme about “luck” here, expect to keep seeing it. So far, luck had been on my side… but this would not last.

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PRO TIP: I met three different people with Air BnB horror stories during the convention. They’d all had last minute Air BnB cancellations for various reasons, and were left scrambling to find a bed and a shower during the busiest days of the year. One even camped out with our group on Friday night because he literally had nowhere else to go. So, for my own peace of mind, having a confirmed room in a hotel makes me feel a lot more secure when there are so many other unknowns in the mix. More on that later.

Getting Around

I flew into LAX, because my friends live in LA and we drove down together. I’m assuming it was cheaper than flying directly into San Diego on Wednesday and out Sunday night, but I’m not 100% sure on that. While I can’t really speak for air travel into the city, I can speak to getting around once you’re there.

One of my favorite things about SDCC was that they provided all convention hotels with a shuttle service that runs every 15 minutes from the Convention Center. This meant that if we didn’t want to walk the mile back to our hotel (which after a long day is the LAST thing you want to do), we could take an air-conditioned ride directly from the doors of the convention to our hotel. It was awesome.

I also took a few Uber rides while I was there, and did not experience any surge pricing (somehow!). A one-way from my hotel to the convention center was about $7.00. I only took these rides early in the morning well before programming started to so I could get in line for what I wanted. I’d imagine that during peak convention times, prices would probably sky-rocket.

We parked for $22 a night at the hotel and didn’t move our car once we parked. I saw parking closer to the convention center for north of $60 a day, which was unreal. Almost everything you’d want to attend is within walking distance, so I would recommend finding a cheaper lot and parking instead of trying to fight the crowds and paying the astronomical prices for a close spot.

Bags, Books, and Lanyards

One of the things Curtis told me before coming to California was to expect to get a giant conference bag to put my stuff in. Think of a reusable grocery bag, except taller with shoulder straps. This year the conference bags were sponsored by Warner Bros and featured different shows or movies depending on which time of day you checked in. I received a bag featuring the Lego Ninjago Movie, while Curtis got a Westworld bag and Celeste got a Supergirl one. The bags also came with little superhero pins, so I sported a little Batman guy for a while on my lanyard.

Speaking of lanyards, the convention also gives you one of those when you arrive for your badge. This year’s lanyards were sponsored by AMC’s The Walking Dead, which I could care less about. My first purchase was actually a Spider-Man lanyard in the exhibit hall for $8.00 because if I was going to have to wear my badge for the next four days, I may as well represent my favorite superhero.

Finally, I picked up a convention quick guide which had the daily schedule, maps, and some general info about rules, lines, etc. I noticed some stacks of convention programs, but wasn’t sure if you were supposed to pay for them and they weren’t actively handing them out. I didn’t end up getting one until the last day when I noticed Curtis and Celeste reading theirs, and they were nice enough to give me one because they could just share their own.

When it comes to the bags and lanyards, there’s two important things to be aware of. If you come expecting the bag to hold all of your stuff, be prepared with Plan B. Tons of people’s straps were breaking off the bags, some only moments after receiving theirs. Celeste’s bag strap ripped only a few hours after she got it. The second strap ripped as we were crossing the street at the end of Thursday night, dropping her bag and belongings into the road. I believe the convention did allow you to trade broken bags back in, and by the end of the convention they only had broken bags left to hand out to people coming to pick theirs up.

Regarding pick-up, the line on Thursday morning was huge. I checked it out around 11 am and the line was slow-moving and very long to pick up bag and lanyard. I instead waited until later in the day when things slowed down a bit to pick my stuff up. It was during this time that I decided to invest in my own Spidey-lanyard.

Crowds, Lines, and Wristbands (Hall H and Ballroom 20)

The line for bags and lanyards wasn’t the only big line at SDCC. Not by a long shot.

I’ve been to Disney World on a busy day before. I’ve waited hours upon hours in line for a ride at an amusement park baking in the hot sun. I thought this had prepared me for what to expect at SDCC. This was where I was completely blindsided (and trust me, you will be too).

You see, I feel like I’m kind of a naturally talented person when it comes to maximizing my time at a busy place. I can do 80% of Magic Kingdom on a busy day by making a good plan, booking it across the park, and not being afraid to be assertive if needed. At SDCC, I had to take everything I knew about waiting in line and throw it out the window. The lines there are NEXT LEVEL CRAZY.

Really want to see a panel at 2 pm? Think about getting there at 8:30 am so you can sit in the three panels before it to secure your spot in the room. Want to just walk in the front door to get in line for that panel? Too bad. There’s a line for that (called Everything Else), and it stretches around the convention center all the way to the marina. People have been in that line since before 4 am, so don’t you dare cut.

I’ll say this: the line situation is maybe the most frustrating and confusing part of the whole experience. Because of the sheer volume of people there, you’re going to need some luck on your side just to simply find the right line and make it all the way to the end before 200 people do the same thing. Lots of people try line jumping and cutting in line, and that’s the first way to make people furious at you. Apparently, someone tried cutting in the Hall H line and was literally shamed away by folks in line chanting “SHAME! SHAME! SHAME!” ala The Handmaid’s Tale. Lines are just intense.

Hall H, by the way, is the most insane line I’ve ever stood in in my entire life, and I’ve been to like every major theme park, experienced crazy flight delays, and attended tons of concerts. None compare.

You see, Hall H is the biggest room in the Convention Center. It holds over 6,000 people and is where the largest panels (think: Marvel Studios, DC, Westworld, Stranger Things, Dr. Who, Game of Thrones) bring out their creative team and cast members. While 6,000 is a lot of people, it is only a tiny fraction of the 130,000+ attendees. And A LOT of people want to get in. So much so, that for Saturday’s big panels (the most popular day) people started camping out in line Thursday afternoon. The group I ended up getting in with (more in a future blog) started camping out at 11 pm on Thursday night, and we were at about the middle of the line when we got in Saturday morning. Anyone who got in line after 8 am on Friday morning didn’t make it into Hall H on Saturday. That’s right: in order to get into Hall H, you needed to spend over 24 hours camping out and miss an entire day of the convention.

This literally blew my mind. One of the most coveted things for me was to attend Stan Lee’s panel on Friday at 12:30 pm. I also really, really wanted to get one of my Goosebumps books from the 90s signed by R.L. Stine at 2:30 pm on Friday. How was I going to do both AND get in to Hall H on Saturday, which was really the ONE thing I wanted to do at the entire convention? The answer: make some friends.

MAJOR PROPS to Curtis for linking me up with one of his friends, Dan, who had created a group on Facebook to wait in line with. SDCC has a rule that every 1 person can hold space for up to 5 people. So, lots of people will trade off with friends or acquaintances to hold their spot while they attend parts of the convention throughout the day. Dan and his group were gracious enough to let me join at 3 pm on Friday – a full 16 hours after they lined up at 11 pm on Thursday night. I took some shifts and helped watch people’s stuff to earn my keep. You can find your own groups using Facebook, Twitter, etc. I’d recommend FOR SURE doing this if you’re going to want to join the Hall H line for Friday or Saturday.

PRO TIP: At about 6 pm, someone came around the line with raffle tickets helping to count how many people were ahead of us in line. We were told that we held the ~520 spot in line. By the time we got our wristbands around 9:30, we were well after 2,000 in line due to people holding spaces.

What’s a wristband? Comic Con provided the first several thousand people in line a wristband for Hall H each day. Once you’re wrist-banded the night before, you’re invited to say in line and camp out or return to your hotel. 95% of people stay in line. For those who return to their room, they must be back in line no later than 7:30 am to be guaranteed a spot in the opening panel that day.

This year there were some major issues with the wristbands on Saturday. People who showed up on time didn’t get in to the exhibit hall, apparently due to counterfeit wristbands. I’m not sure what they’ll be doing next year, but I bet there will be tweaks announced to the wristband process in the weeks leading up to SDCC.

Schedule and App

Part of the craziness of the whole thing to me was that the schedule wasn’t released until just a few weeks before the event. So, you have to shell out money for your badge, flight, and hotel months before the schedule is announced! For some, this may be a wild gamble.

I’m not going into too much detail here about the schedule because it changes every year, but essentially here’s some basics:

  • Hall H and Ballroom 20 are usually busiest on Friday and Saturday. If you want to get into those panels, expect to camp out for multiple nights.
  • Conversely, Hall H had walk-in availability on both Thursday and Sunday this year. This may not be the case next year, though!
  • They do a good job of trying to put the popular stuff in the larger rooms, but again that isn’t always the case. If there’s a panel you REALLY want to attend, do your best to get there early.
  • There’s a ton of different stuff happening concurrently, so consider having one or two (or three) backup things to attend in case you can’t get into the one you want! Also, location is important. If your backup is across the convention center or in a different hotel, it may be nearly impossible for you to make it from one to another in a decent amount of time.

In order to keep track of your schedule, SDCC has something called MySched. This is separate (for some silly reason) from your actual Comic Con ID, so you’ll need to create a new username and password just to save your schedule. You can access it in your favorites on an app, which released the updated schedule just a week or so before the convention started.

The app was terrible. Atrocious. An embarrassment. It was very hard to navigate, tough to find what you were looking for, and laid out very poorly. Also, the sponsor (some new show on NBC) had an ad overlay EVERY TIME you opened the app. I’ve been to lots of other events who’ve used apps ten times better than SDCC did. So, if you’re attending, expect to use the Quick Guide’s printed schedule as it is much handier than the app itself.

Off-Site Events

If you take nothing else from this post (and I know it is looooong), remember this: there’s this whole separate part of SDCC that you’d never know about if it wasn’t for the internet. I’m talking about the off-site events which are peppered around the city. Somehow I arrived in San Diego completely clueless about this, and wished I had spent some more time doing research on what was available.

Off the top of my head, there were offsite events featuring Westworld, IMDb, SyFy, Kingsman, FX, Kong: Skull Island, Adult Swim, Blade Runner 2049, IT, MTV, and Netflix. That is just the tip of the iceberg! You could conceivably come to SDCC without a badge and spend time doing ONLY off-site events and not do all of them.

That’s because, you guessed it, the lines for these are insane. Some are top secret and exclusive, like Westworld’s undisclosed location and limited guest list each day. Others wrapped around the block for hours with no guarantee of freebies (apparently Netflix would just randomly give out things to people, it was not first come-first serve). Plenty are right outside of the convention center with their own hours and line rules. You should absolutely do some research on the off-site events before arriving at SDCC as the convention doesn’t publish much information (if any) for most of them.

It can all get a little confusing. If you’re looking for a smooth experience for your first SDCC, I’d recommend picking just one or two off-site experiences you want to test out because there’s just no way you’re going to be able to do all of them! Some got more popular as the weekend went on, and others less popular. Checking Twitter for line updates is a good way to go.

Exhibit Hall

I’ll say up front that I could have easily spent like four more hours in the Exhibit Hall than I did, and I was in there for about six hours or so throughout the Con. It is MASSIVE. Think “Black Friday at Wal-Mart in 1998 getting a Tickle-Me-Elmo” style crowds as far as the eye can see. Fortunately, they sort of break it up into sections.

There’s a spot for Silver and Gold age comics (old, expensive books), another for the Artist’s Alley where you can meet artists and commission sketches, and a whole wall just for video games. They also spread some of the bigger displays out a bit by having Lego, Hasbro, Netflix, Marvel, etc. spaced far enough apart so lines don’t start blending into each other.

From what I could tell, almost all of the booths took credit cards through Square. For autographs in booths, all required cash. There were ATMs in the Convention Center which allowed you to make withdrawals for a $3.50 service fee – something I was really grateful for on the last day when Stan Lee did a surprise signing.

If large crowds, long lines, loud noises, or flea-market like shopping isn’t your thing – you may want to steer clear of the Exhibit Hall.

I don’t suggest skipping it though! There are so many cool things to do, funny cosplayers to see, and unique pieces of art to peruse. Plan to spend at least half a day in the Exhibit Hall. I spent most of my time in there on Sunday and didn’t feel like things were super picked-over that I wanted to see, plus there were even some sales going on from booths trying to clear inventory.

Food

If your favorite mall kiosks are Auntie Anne’s Pretzels and Mrs. Field’s cookies, you’re going to love SDCC because they are literally everywhere. However, if you’d like some actual protein or anything fresh in your diet – you’re going to need to plan ahead a bit.

There are some general concession stands (think hot dogs, pizza, nachos) set up, but the lines were really long and the food looked less than appealing. I recommend grabbing breakfast at your hotel or bringing something small like a granola bar or fruit with you. Lunch was the hardest meal for me – so many panels ran during the noon hour, there aren’t really any fast food or fast casual places nearby the convention center, and even if there were it would take at least 90 minutes to fight the crowds to get food and get back. So, I ate a soft pretzel for lunch pretty much every day.

Dinner was a different story, as there are tons of restaurants in the Gas Lamp district adjacent to the convention center. We didn’t really wait very long for food on Thursday or Saturday nights when we went out to eat, so it was great to not have to wait in line for once.

I’d plan to bring some healthy snacks like apples, clementine oranges, or bananas along with some trail mix, sandwiches, and a water bottle with you for the day. There are refillable water stations throughout the convention center, so you can always keep yourself hydrated.

Packing List

Obviously you should bring some clothes and comfy shoes with you (I wore Chacos all weekend and was so glad I did). What else do you need? Here’s what I’d say are my essentials:

  • Snacks and a water bottle
  • A book or kindle
  • Portable battery charger for your phone
  • Black or Silver Sharpe for random autographs (you never know!)
  • Body spray/face wipes (especially if you’re camping out)
  • A Towel (something to sit on when you’re waiting in line)
  • Hoodie/sweater for the cold convention center
  • Hand Sanitizer (life saver), Kleenex, and advil
  • A sit-bag
  • Headphones
  • Some nerdy t-shirts so you’ll fit in if you’re not cosplaying
  • Lanyard so you don’t need to wait around for one on Thursday
  • Backpack or messenger bag (your preference)
  • A Poster Tube – even if you don’t think you’ll need one

Twitter

Last, but certainly not least, props to Twitter for helping to keep my sanity intact all weekend. Even if you’re not a Twitter user, I’d recommend getting an account for SDCC. There are tons of updates on lines, off-site events, special giveaways, and insider tips that you’d miss out on without it. Props to these Twitter accounts for helping to make the weekend much more manageable:

That’s it! There’s my run-down on what to expect at your first SDCC. As you can tell, there’s a ton of info (I’m almost at 4000 words!) and I still didn’t cover everything. However, this should be a great start to help you plan and manage your expectations!

What the Heck is Comic Con?

Last weekend over 130,000 (!) people arrived at the San Diego Convention Center for the 2017 San Diego Comic Con (SDCC) event. What started about 40 years ago as a relatively small  event – I think of it then as a comic book collector’s dream weekend of discussing their favorite superhero stories with other like-minded nerds from around the country – has ballooned into one of the world’s largest destination for all things pop-culture. SDCC draws people from every continent to experience the latest and greatest offerings from movies to television, video games to toy collecting, and book publishing to, of course, comic books.

When I say that 130,000 people is a lot of people… I mean it is A LOT of people. The 2017 SDCC was my first ever time attending, and I was woefully underprepared for what that number really meant. To make a long story short, most accounts suggest that SDCC was a relatively manageable event to attend until 2009. That year, the cast of Twilight attended “the Con” (that’s the in-group lingo for the event, I learned last week) to debut footage for their next event. Since then, masses of people who have never once read a comic book attend the event to see the latest exclusive trailers for upcoming major movie releases, gather hints for upcoming plot lines on their favorite television shows returning for the Fall season, or just to see their favorite celebrities “in-person” at various panel discussions. Now, the lines are so long and the venue is so crowded at times it is literally difficult to move. And yet, people come.

Separate from the silver and small-screen offerings, toy collecting is one of the hottest things at Comic Con. Several years ago, I remember seeing Funko Pop! Vinyl figurines for the first time and having no idea why anyone would want to collect tiny pieces of molded plastic with giant bug eyes that semi-resembled obscure pop-culture characters. Now, separately from my time at SDCC, I’m the proud owner of about a dozen Funko Pop! figures that I display in my home office. I didn’t pick any up this year at SDCC partly because there weren’t any I wanted, but mostly because people literally camp out in line for 12 hours overnight for the chance at a ticket to MAYBE get the SDCC-exclusive figurine they wanted from the Funko booth. Maybe.

For the lucky ones that do get their hands on some exclusive collectables at the event, there’s apparently a profit to be made. I heard someone in line behind me saying there are some Game of Thrones exclusives (retail price of $10) that were already on eBay for $200+ during the second day of the convention. Apparently, there’s people who attend SDCC solely to buy and flip exclusive toys for enormous profit margins.

Meanwhile, the rest of the convention exhibition space (where the toy collecting takes place) is a huge draw for many people to the convention. You could spend two entire days combing the half-mile long exhibit floor and not see or experience everything there is to offer. Nickelodeon had custom shirts for sale (sold-out daily in minutes). Netflix, Marvel, and Warner Bros gave away free posters and swag for their upcoming projects. Comic artists, writers, and celebrities did in-booth (and very lightly advertised) signings with “capped” lines. Hundreds of stands sold custom artwork, rare and valuable comics, used toys, anime DVDs, and offered video game demos. The most unique thing I in the exhibit hall saw was probably a large booth space which showcased items from the personal collections of Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher, to be auctioned off this Fall on eBay. Neat stuff, but pretty random to see a vintage Singing in the Rain poster at an event started for comic book fans.

Ultimately, at the core of SDCC is the fans. People come from near and far to have the chance to totally geek out with like-minded people over things that are oftentimes deemed too nerdy to talk about publicly. This seems like a good transition into discussing Cosplay (a term that combines Costume and Play). At least 1 in 5 people at SDCC donned a costume and strutted their stuff around the convention center. Think of it like another time, besides Halloween, where it is socially acceptable for grown men to wear full Spider-Man outfits, and for adult women to wear pasties and body paint instead of a shirt. Also, lots of Wonder Woman costumes (apparently replacing last year’s hot costume, Harley Quinn).

I didn’t Cosplay, but I did meet some awesome people. In the line for the bathroom (20-minute wait), I had an awesome discussion with two guys about the merits of Rogue One vs The Force Awakens, whether or not Valerian will someday be considered as good as the Fifth Element, and if it would be worth my time to watch Iron Fist on Netflix before the Defenders comes out in August. Ultimately, we agreed that people were overly harsh on some CGI effects in Rogue One, The Force Awakens was 10 times better than anything George Lucas did with the prequel trilogy, only time will tell about Valerian (none of us had seen it yet), and unfortunately, I probably should just power through Iron Fist.

As I was standing in this line, I thought to myself “damn, this is awesome”. Here I was, talking to two perfect strangers about things I’d normally be too embarrassed to talk about super publicly. There was no judgement over our difference of opinions, we were all coincidentally wearing different Star Wars shirts, and most importantly, I felt this immediate sense of trust with them. They’d spent the time in the long lines like I had, invested a pretty penny in being there, and were just as excited as me to see the upcoming panel (Warner Bros was about to premiere the Justice League trailer).

So, what is Comic Con? It depends on who you ask. For some, it is an excuse to turn a profit on toy collecting. For others, it is a way to score that autograph they’ve always coveted. For me, it was a chance to experience in-person an event I’d heard so much about and see for myself just how powerful the experience could be. What did I learn? What did I do? Looking forward to sharing that soon!