To be interested in comics means you have probably heard that San Diego Comic-Con is a must-attend event by a lot of people. But is it? You’ve probably also heard about the lotteries for badges and hotels and the crowding, lines, and other issues that plague larger conventions.
So, you need to read the below recounting of San Diego Comic-Con 2017 and decide for yourself… is it worth it all? Can I have a good time despite the issues that make other conventions miserable?
Let’s find out.
We went far off our usual path and stayed at the Kona Kai Resort on Shelter Island. It was one of the furthest hotels on the shuttle route. We knew we were taking a bit of a gamble with the distance, but the early research we did on hotels led us to believe this would be a good place to be.
Our early impression of the hotel was pretty nice. It has a unique lobby that has an interesting mix of modern contemporary, Spanish, and tropical design elements. A few interesting sculpture pieces were in the main waiting area, as well as a large-scale Jenga game for people to entertain themselves with.
The rooms are nice and roomy; not the biggest rooms I have seen, but they do feel a bit larger than a standard hotel room. The bathrooms have good ventilation, but they don’t have the newest fixtures I have ever seen. The rooms have tropical leaf patterned wallpaper in shades of blue to give the rooms a more airy feel, and each of the rooms has a balcony large enough for three adults to sit on without being crowded. The first floor rooms have hedges separating them from the parking lot on the outer wall, but there is a walking path through these hedges, so do not just leave things out on the first floor. The second floor has separated balconies, so it’s not as much of an issue.
The pool here is amazing. It isn’t at the same scale as the Marriott Marquis and Marina, for sure, but it does have a lot of seats and a couple of fire pits for cool evenings. The poolside bar and the restaurant in the hotel are gorgeous and worthwhile if you have the money in your budget. There’s even a man-made beach with more fire pits behind the pool area accessible by a ramp. The water off the beach is studded with a lot of boats, but it’s the only beach I know of in the Shelter Island area, so that makes it very unique.
That being said, we did have a couple issues with the Kona Kai. The railing for our sliding glass door had some salt corrosion on it, creating gaping holes in the metal frame, so we had a “shoes on only” rule for our balcony. The curtains had a few small holes from wear and tear. Some of the staff happened to be in training that weekend, so we had a couple of hiccoughs to smooth out, but by Day 1 of the convention, it was fairly well fixed.
The hotel was a positive experience in the end, though the in-room snack bar tray was ridiculously expensive (to the tune of $2.50 for a Snickers bar.)
The shuttle, though, created a bit of a problem this year. There was the shuttle drive time at the end of the Teal Route of 40 minutes. That wasn’t fun by any stretch. The problem we had, especially on Days 1 and 2 of Comic-Con, was that a number of busses arrived to our hotel unable to pick anyone up because they were full. Our shuttle had five other stops to get to before ours and picked up people at most of those stops. This created a 45-minute wait on Day 1 as people waited for up to 9 busses to arrive before there was room to take anyone on board at the Kona Kai shuttle stop.
I haven’t had a confirmed reason for this, but Jesse heard that there was a shuttle driver on our route who was given an early 4-hour break without any replacements, so our route was down one bus out of four for Day 1. It seems like a plausible reason since that was largely solved by mid-morning on Day 2, and the busses were packed, but seats could still be found.
If you’re looking for a recommendation, the summary would be: The Shelter Island hotels are nice and outside the norm for chain hotels, but the shuttle almost makes it not worth it.
I wish other conventions ran their registration process as well as Comic-Con International does.
Oh, it has issues, don’t get me wrong. The lottery system keeps your anxiety on high at every phase, given that is a random lottery both times. For pre-sale, for those who went the year before, you have better-than-decent odds of getting a badge, but for people in open registration, those odds are close to 1-in-20 of getting even a one-day badge. This scares some people off, but obviously not that many if you have nearly 20,000,000 people trying to get 100,000 badges every year.
After WonderCon 2016, Comic-Con International moved to an RFID badge system for both WonderCon and Comic-Con. With this system, you need to tap your badge on a scanner to get in or out of the building. It ads one extra step in your processing to get through the door, but it also smoothes the lines that wait to get in. It allows everyone to move much more quickly.
However, you cannot just put your badge in your pocket after that. As some people found out the hard way, the staff in the Convention Center wants your badge on display at all times as you walk, so you need to have a lanyard available if you decked to forego Comic-Con’s registration bags and lanyards. Gathering your registration packet was pretty simple in 2017. They moved the pickup for these items back to the Salis Pavilion in the center of the second floor of the Convention Center. There wasn’t any wait to get them. It was a walk-up process and very smooth.
With a new contract extension signed, this is the home of San Diego Comic-Con through 2021, now, so if you have reservations about where it’s held, it’s best to keep them constructive until the new contract negotiations likely in 2019.
This long building is a fun place to hold conventions. It’s halls can be interconnected to create about a half-mile of continuous exhibits. Most of the front façade is glass, allowing a lot of light. The lobby isn’t as deep as the one at Anaheim or Los Angeles, but since the entire building is a badge-only zone, that’s not as much of a detriment as you would expect.
The second floor has two main outer-hallways, both covered by a long half-tube of windows, letting in even more light than below and creating a very open feel. The central hallways are on the interior of the meeting rooms and have only halogen light, but they keep those bulbs changed on a frequent basis, so there isn’t much of a dark area up there.
In the center of the second floor is the Salis Pavilion; a large glass box where all of the official SDCC signings occur. The upper area of Salis has artsy canvas covers protecting you from most direct sunlight, and they bring in extra air conditioning units to keep this area cool, and it is SO appreciated.
This building is crowded with 130,000 people, but they make the best of a rough situation because this building is one of the largest available in Southern California, in decent proximity to a lot of hotels, and is accessible to a number of entertainment and comic companies, so this is probably where it will stay if the convention continues to occur in California.
This room is central to a lot of people’s experience, and I can see why.
Major companies like Lego, Hasbro, Blizzard, Mattel, NECA, Fox, the Walking Dead, Warner Brothers, Nickelodeon, DC Comics, Marvel Comics, Image Comics, and a number of others have very large booths that have their own exclusives to sell to people as they work their way through. A number of those booths also have a ticketing system that you must use to buy unless you are tremendously lucky.
The Exhibit Hall is also split into sections that can make your experience easier if you have a clear idea of what you’re looking for including Artist’s Alley, Small Press which has cosplayers, smaller companies, and crafters, the Gold & Silver Pavilion which specializes in Gold and Silver Age comics, and so on. There’s a sprinkling of more general areas, but not much of it.
That’s not to say it’s easy to move around. The complaints by people of the Exhibit Hall being crowded are justified. There are times it’s very hard to move around, especially Sunday after people check out of hotel rooms and have nowhere else to be. Jesse and I had to move past the WB booth during a Sunday Supernatural signing and it was near impossible for a few minutes. But, this is also something you can adapt to by reading the schedules of the signings on the Exhibit Hall floor. When you get the rhythm of the room, it’s really not so bad.
To do panels at San Diego Comic Con, you have to remember this phrase: “You will never see everything you want to.”
That isn’t a defeatist statement about lines or bemoaning all of the walking, reading, snack buying, and preparation I found necessary to get ready. That is a simple truth that the schedule for Comic Con for the five years I have attended has been so jam-packed with interesting panels by industry, creators, and entertainment companies, that you often have to say, “To see this panel, I’m going to have to skip that panel.” This is one reason I’m pretty well satisfied by my Comic-Con experience even though I miss a lot, because I still saw more than enough to make the weekend beyond worthwhile.
I saw panels by TV shows, writers, artists, movie-makers, and production companies, and still had time to get several signatures, visit with people, and pick up exclusives.
Though, I must say that this level of involvement meant I needed to read the full panel list a couple of weeks in advance and make sure what I was going to see and what I was going to give up to do so. It’s a hard choice, but it’s better than standing in the Salis Pavilion unsure of which way to move.
You’ll never find convention staff that will tell you 100% of the time that you’re in the right, but I have yet to find a staff as courteous on all ends as those at Comic-Con. The convention staff themselves are pretty kind and straight forward, but even the convention center staff will use “please” and “thank you, sir” even when they are telling you when you’re going the wrong way. After being yelled at by Anime Expo staffers, this felt like a night and day difference, and this is a larger convention with better trained staff.
They even have volunteers who go through a training process before being put on the floor. I witnessed groups of volunteers being gathered and led to their posts by staff, and none of them were surly or blurry-eyed. All of them looked sharp and ready to work. Of course, a shift of volunteering getting you a day’s badge probably had something to do with it… but, these are motivated workers and the convention ran well because of it.
I wasn’t held up by convention policies or staff. Every part of the convention I came to was well run and defined with staff able to promptly point you to the right line and waiting places for panels or exclusive lists.
It can get lost under the scale of the convention, but these people do care about what you’re looking for and treat you with respect.
Cosplay is often described as light at Comic-Con, but this year, it felt near non-existent.
If you’re looking for the number of cosplayers you would find at an anime convention, this trade show isn’t for you. If you’re looking for the number of cosplayers at Wondercon, this still isn’t for you.
While cosplay happens at San Diego Comic-Con, it isn’t the needed distraction a lot of other conventions need. There’s already so much to see in panels, the Exhibit Hall, and numerous off site experiences, that you’ll find that cosplay isn’t the priority cosplayers often look for. The only places for larger gatherings is on the second floor outer deck of the convention center, and that is a badge-only zone, so ghosting photographers won’t find any easy access.
Add into that a crowded Exhibit Hall floor with few convenient places to stop, off sites that take up almost all of the adjacent park space, half of hotels needing shuttle access, so quick changes are not accessible, and weather that leans towards humid when it’s gentle and muggy when it’s bad, cosplay just isn’t a feature.
However, the cosplayers that do show up do tend to show their A-game, and they can be picked by some local companies following social media about the weekend for special videos or advertisements made during the four days of Comic-Con.
In the end, it’s your choice.
So, you went through Registration and only picked up Thursday and/or Sunday badges? You’re bummed that you won’t be able to see the big television and movie panels of the weekend? Don’t sit on your hands. You still have a lot you can do.
A number of entertainment companies have made off site experiences; things for you to see that doesn’t require a Comic-Con badge to enter. There was a Wasted Island experience, a Legion offsite, a Gifted Mutant Gene Testing, a Westworld experience, a Game of Thrones interactive experience, and more things than I can list without making an entire article about it. You have things to keep you entertained with a little bit of research and foresight.
This section of San Diego, referred to as the Gaslamp Quarter, comes alive with nerdy shops and exhibits during the days of and around Comic-Con. The local restaurants will sometimes host companies showing things to people away from the Convention Center, or even have a temporary façade put up or menu catering to the fans in the area. The whole section of the city can feel like an adult version of Disneyland’s Main Street… sometimes complete with mid-day parades and insane crowding.
It’s worth walking around, though. There’s a number of restaurants in the area catering to all kinds of taste, and while there will be some panhandling in the area, San Diego also ups the amount of police in the area and makes them very visible. I won’t say it’s absolutely safe; bags have been stolen and people accosted, but it’s heartening to see the interest San Diego has taken in Comic-Con.
San Diego Comic-Con shuts down most of its panels and functions at 8:00 p.m. That’s where the city takes over and gives you something to see.
The Gaslamp lit up at night is pretty soothing from a distance. Up close, it’s full of fans and locals mixing up in the bars and grills to refill their bellies before moving on to another bar or a game of Cards Against Humanity. While walking around at night, even at 1:00 a.m., you’ll find groups of people moving between clubs, comedy clubs, bars, and hotels to the next party or drink. I’m not a drinker myself, but I love the feeling of camaraderie in the area during the weekend.
You can just feel like you were dropped in a nerd festival when the sun goes down.
Don’t think that this is a perfect experience. It takes preparation to really get your money-worth out of this very large trade show. But there’s a good chance you’ll do at least one of the major items you set for yourself just because Comic-Con International has done as much as they can to make it accessible. Myself, I managed to get four signatures during the weekend and only planned on getting one, if that tells you anything.
If you get flustered, breathe out, step away from your planning for a minute, grab a bottle of your favorite comfort drink, and think of the celebrities and creators that are going to put their best foot forward to impress you at the biggest comic book event of the year.
San Diego Comic-Con isn’t the easiest convention to navigate, but if you put the work in, you’re likely to have an experience that follows you for a lifetime.