Advice for SDCC first-timers

14 JULY 2023

In all the griping about SDCC programming this year, it's easy to forget that this will be some attendees' first Comic-Con ever. I know 6 first-timers, ranging from age 16 to 50something, and I vacillate between wishing they were walking into a better Con and thinking at least they won't know the difference. 

This year also seems to have brought back a lot of people who stopped going a decade+ ago. I'm guessing that's a delayed pandemic effect - maybe these people yearned for a big splashy event during lockdown and last fall was the first badge sale they could access.

If you're going to SDCC for the first time or the first time in a long time, here is some advice.

There will be plenty to do and see and buy.

Ignore all the dark mutterings about this Comic-Con. (Including mine.) You will experience an Exhibit Hall that seems jam packed with treasures, have your choice of screenings and tournaments and exhibits and panels and parties. Just let the experience take you.

But set priorities - and don't try to see everything.

It's really easy to get distracted at Comic-Con. Make a plan now that details your top panels, events, and exclusives, organize it by day, and then build each day around your top 2-3 things. First-timers often roll up ready to go gangbusters on SDCC, with full page checklists for each day - but that is setting yourself up for frustration. Rank your objectives and let go of the less important stuff.

If you want to change your hotel arrangements, you can - sort of.

You won't get your deposit back. But you can cancel the remaining nights. This might be an attractive option if you dislike your hotel and you're seeing rooms open up at closer hotels like Hilton Bayfront, Omni, Hilton Gaslamp, and Hyatt. 

When you check in, ask for a room on a lower floor if your priority is to quickly get in and out. The higher up you are, the longer your elevator rides are. And it's fine to try to upgrade your room at the desk and even ask about booking a room with no deposit for next summer. Will it work? Probably not but I'm surprised at how often the front desk people accommodate me.

Save your feet for when you need them.

Comic-Con is so active. There's no shame in popping open a chair when you're in line or taking a pedicab or even a Lyft across the Gaslamp. Save your foot power for getting around the convention center.

The Exhibit Hall is a battlefield, so armor up.

You'll want to:

  • Approach "deals" with a healthy dose of cynicism. Check on your phone and you can often find the same thing cheaper online. That includes everything from "out of print" books to Funko Pops to trades. 
  • Bring a lot of cash. Yes, most (not all) vendors take cards but sometimes it won't go through and a lot of vendors will drop their price a bit for cash.
  • Barter politely but cunningly. I've seen attendees assume everything is up for negotiation and it's just not. Don't be abrasive, thinking you're showing the vendor how street smart you are. It's fine to ask about volume discounts (and if you pretend to hesitate between buying 2 or more items, often the vendor will propose one). Sunday is your best day for big markdowns.
  • Visit toward closing hours if you hate crowds. Early hours used to be good, but now tend to get pretty busy. The middle of the day is an enochlophobe's nightmare, and an affront to olfactory senses everywhere.
  • Keep it moving. When friend groups or families clog up the aisles to talk or take photos, they are bringing movement to a halt, which starts a backward domino effect. It's best to go by the restrooms for a conference, and to go out to the lobby and walk down from Lobby A to Lobby E.
  • Ask if all the cute postcards and buttons and bookmarks on small press/artist tables are actually free. They're usually for sale - so don't just grab them! This is a complaint I hear from many artists.
  • Because this year might be congested, I'd advise snatching up what you want when you see it. If you absolutely can't buy it at that moment, photograph the booth with number visible.
  • Support artists and vendors if you can. The pandemic+ has been economically tough on creatives and this Con might be hard too. If you can afford it, ask for a commission or buy some nice framed art. There are so many wonderfully creative people at Comic-Con and while you won't like everything you'll see, you'll definitely like something. I skipped the early Halloween Bath and Body Works sale this morning precisely because I'd rather buy little gothic knickknacks that are actually unique and put revenue in the artist's pocket.

Take advantage of bag check and shipping. 

Your arms - and your hotel room - might fill up quickly with bags of heavy stuff, so use bag check in the convention center lobby (not overnight) and ship things home via the FedEx/UPS offices onsite, at the Marriott, and in the Gaslamp.

Stay connected.

Hopefully you bought a portable charger on Amazon Prime Day. Trying to charge at the convention center is a fool's dream, but if you must, head upstairs in the room 27 area or over to the Marriott hall past the Starbucks. It's usually easy to find a chair and an outlet there. But really, it's just easier to bring extra batteries and power packs.

Don't hurl yourself at celebrities.
Not that you'll see any this year, but you never know. The Hard Rock lobby will be a ghost town and the Gaslamp bars late at night will feel incomplete; but should you spot a famous face, it's fine to ask for a photo. Just respect their boundaries.

Don't spend your entire night in line.

We do that enough in the day, right? And the reality is that many parties will accept your "registration" and even send you a confirmation email, but will never let you in unless you're Someone. Just keep it moving.

Respect cosplayers.

Cosplayers get groped, harassed, sweated on, and generally invaded in a hundred different ways so be respectful of their space. They pose with a lot of people and it can get kind of gross for them to have stranger after stranger pressing up against them. Remember they're people, not props. That said, it is acceptable to address them by their character name. You'll often hear people calling "Catwoman! Leia! Facehugger!" to get someone's attention and the cosplayer will usually answer to that name.

Eat well and go outside the Gaslamp.

Attendees seem to promote the same mediocre places over and over out of... nostalgia maybe? Try to set aside time to eat proper meals (shouldn't be difficult this year) and look for real restaurants instead of the gimmicky places that offer a bunch of Con specials. You may pay a little more but you won't spend nearly as much time in line and you'll have a better meal.

Also stay hydrated and try to get at least 1-2 good nights' sleep.  There's nothing like finally getting into Hall H and sleeping through 2 panels. This year, you can probably afford to sleep in without missing anything, so there's that.

Make an effort to make friends.
As I alluded to in my post about going to SDCC alone, if you find yourself in line, you'll find yourself in conversations. "Friends for a reason, friends for a season, and friends for a lifetime" applies here - you can meet all 3 categories at SDCC. Generally speaking, talking to other attendees is a great way to find about things, swap tickets, get invites, and generally expand your Con consciousness.

As far as hooking up goes, I've never found SDCC to be the big nerd sexfest everyone thinks. For some people, obviously, it is. For most people - eh. In general, whether you're looking to make friends, join a new buying group, or meet your soulmate, my advice is the same - talk to people.

Check media coverage.

Even when you're in the thick of things, you'll still miss events and collectibles and surprise guests. Check your favorite sources every day to find out who's having a sudden concert, who got heat stroke and cancelled their panel, or what the hit exclusive is.

Follow panel etiquette.

This has really gone downhill in recent years, but here goes: 

  • If you get up to the microphone at a panel, be succinct. Don't get lost in the moment and keep talking and talking - this happens a lot!
  • Don't hold your iPad or camera above your head for a prolonged period, blocking the view of the person behind you. 
  • Don't try to save an entire row of seats for your friends. Usually people are understanding about 1 or 2 seats with your bag/jacket on them.
  • Most rooms will give out bathroom passes. If you don't want to negotiate that in the dark, locate the bathroom pass person before the lights go out. Note where people come in and go out because it's often on opposite sides of the room.

Make sure you're standing in the right line.

Last weekend, I was at a small horror Con with a really long line on my way out. I asked what it was for and multiple people said "the X signing/buying a ticket." Yes, two different lines had somehow merged into one, creating a longer wait for everyone. Always check that you're joining the proper line. 

Don't antagonize a security guard.

Security guards come in a variety of personality types and need to be handled strategically. Some are quite nice. Some are probably nice 99% of the time but are currently frustrated by their Con interactions and now they're about to snap. Others are on a major power trip. 

All you need to know is this: you will not win a confrontation with an SDCC security guard. If one is rude or controlling with you in a way you think is unfair, don't engage - just walk away and find another way to get what you want. Asking an attendee is often more helpful, given our encyclopedic knowledge of Comic-Con.

I don't entirely know what to expect next week, but I do feel safe making one prediction: that Comic-Con is mostly what you make it. You have the power to make connections, attend events, organize your Exhibit Hall hunting, and take the extra steps to enjoy those offerings just outside the convention center. Be open to adventure, be flexible enough to let go of whatever isn't working out, and make the most of what does happen. If you can do that, you'll have an incredible time.

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