For fans of nerdy films, television, and comic books, July isn’t just the first full month of summer, it is also the time of the biggest comic book convention of the year, Comic-Con International: San Diego. Known informally as “Comic-Con,” “SDCC,” or even just “Con,” it is a massive event celebrating geeky pursuits of all stripes. In reality, it is four or five different conventions occurring all at once. Attending Comic-Con can be overwhelming, as luminaries from film, television, gaming, comics, cosplay, and other fields all converge in San Diego for one week. Whether it is your first time or, say, your 25th year going to the Con, you should be prepared for some of the in and outs. Luckily, we have prepared a survival guide for the biggest of Nerd Proms you’ll ever experience.
July 19-22, 2018 (Preview Night: July 18)
Wednesday July 19 6-9pm
Thursday–Saturday July 19–21 9:30am-7pm
Sunday July 22 9:30am–5pm
San Diego Convention Center
11 W. Harbor Drive, San Diego
Check out the map here
Assuming you have your hotel, Comic-Con badge, and travel arrangements secured – we definitely recommend taking the train in if you are from the Los Angeles area – you should come to San Diego with at least a few key items beyond clothing and toiletries. A good, strong backpack is a must. The Con provides a specialty bag for all the free stuff and collectables you might get, but it will not be enough. In your backpack, you should have hand sanitizer (an absolute must), a refillable water bottle, any medications you might need – including plain old pain relievers – and at least a handful of protein/energy bars. It is easy to lose track of meal plans while roaming the show floor or waiting in line for a panel, and it will inevitably leave you feeling awful. There are a few choices for food inside the Convention Center, but long lines and questionable quality levels do not make them great options, so packing something to munch on is as important as securing a badge to the show.
It is also a good idea to have a light jacket or sweatshirt at all times. San Diego’s weather can be unpredictable in July and varies throughout the day. A muggy morning can turn into a windy evening by the water. Also, Hall H can become incredibly cold during less popular panels.
Good walking shoes are also essential as you can end up walking anywhere from 4 to 20 miles a day, even if you make use of the Con shuttles or San Diego’s great tram system. Since you still have a couple of weeks before the show, buying a pair now and breaking them in would be a good idea.
It is definitely important to read the Comic-Con panel schedule. CCI releases the program a few weeks before the show over the course of four days, which gives you ample time to study it. Consider the things you really want to see and allow huge buffers of time to guarantee you can see them. Let’s use the Riverdale cast panel as an example. It is in Hall H this year and could lead into something like the Warner Bros. Pictures presentation or The Walking Dead’s annual panel. These two events are the Con equivalent of sell-out shows, events that people will camp out for overnight to see. (More on Hall H in a moment). Take a good look at your must-see events and the other panels occurring in that room – this will determine how much time you will have to spend in line. For shows like Voltron: Legendary Defenders or Wynonna Earp – which both attract very large Comic-Con crowds – plan to be in line two hours beforehand. In some cases, you might find yourself in the event room watching the two panels prior to the one you want and discover your next geeky obsession. If you’re in a long line, you might meet a new friend.
But with wait times getting longer and longer, consider only pursuing two must-see panels a day. If they are both in Hall H or Ballroom 20, consider camping there the whole day.
Seating around 6,500 attendees, the San Diego Convention Center’s Hall H is the largest meeting room in the entire complex. Ballroom 20, directly above Hall H, seats roughly 4,000, and has similar peculiarities to Hall H – including those stunningly long lines. Both tolerate a certain amount of camping for fans excited to see Doctor Who‘s newest Time Lord or the Big Bang Theory panels, but only Hall H uses a wristband system to determine who waited the longest and to calculate how many people will get into the Hall for the first panel of the day. For some attendees, Comic-Con is nothing but camping all night for a seat in Hall H and camping all day inside for the panel they really want to see, like that Warner Bros. presentation.
If you are considering camping for Hall H, keep a few things in mind: the convention “tolerates” camping out in the sense that you may use one foldable chair or one sleeping bag per person. Tents, large coolers, small barbecues, and other camping gear are not allowed. You may not use these items to hold your place in line, so be part of a group if you think you might run back to the hotel or use the restroom in Hall G, which is open to those in line through the night. And as the old “take only photos, leave only footprints” adage goes, make sure your trash stays with you when the line starts to move in the morning. There are many, many trash bins in the Hall H line itself, so disposing of garbage will not be a problem. Also consider that you must keep all of your stuff in a compact space once inside the hall as the Convention Center and the county fire marshal do not tolerate cluttered aisles for safety reasons.
The wristband system also allows you to go back to the hotel to sleep. You can return to the line before 7:30 AM and be guaranteed a seat in Hall H. It may not be front row, but the front is not necessarily the best spot inside the hall – any seat with a good view of one of Hall H’s many video screens is great, and some presentations require a certain amount of distance from the stage to get the full effect. Also, Hall H contains its own restroom facilities at the northwest end.
If you plan to camp or use a wristband, the “Next Day Hall H” line starts near the ferrying landing behind the Convention Center. Distribution of the wristbands begins between 7:30pm and 9pm depending on the day and requires you to present both your Comic-Con badge and your ID to receive one.
Ballroom 20, meanwhile, does not use the wristband system, but does allow a line to form in the early hours of the day. As with everything surrounding Comic-Con, plan accordingly.
For some people, Hall H and Ballroom 20 are the beginning and end of their Comic-Con experience. For others, it is the mammoth exhibit hall – a.k.a. “The Floor” – and hunting for a one-of-a-kind collectible or for convention-exclusive merchandise. If you are interested in the latter, you are looking at more lines and waking up early in the morning. There is the general line to get in and then another line that the individual exclusive sellers use at their booths. They also have their own release schedules throughout the day to mitigate some of the traffic inside the convention. Many retailers, like Entertainment Earth, are already announcing their exclusives on their own websites.
But if you just want to browse the floor, consider doing it early Thursday. It used to be the best full day for browsing, but a Thursday afternoon at Comic-Con is indistinguishable from the rest of the weekend at this point. There is a logic to the layout of the floor, with video games occupying the northwest end of the Convention Center in Hall A, followed by comic books and collectables in Halls B through D. Halls E and F contain the larger media and toy company booths. Traffic congestion is frequent as people stop to look at the zombies in AMC’s Walking Dead booth or CW stars at Warner Bros.’ two-tier installation. But crossing through that into Hall G, you will find individual comics artists, gaming supplies, and, at the very end of the hall, the Funko booth for all your Pops needs. If you happen to be into Pops, plan your day around waiting in that line.
Navigating the floor comes down to personal preference and the key booths you want to visit. Keep in mind that these locations could be at opposite ends of the floor and require a much longer walk than you expect. In fact, always plan an extra 20 minutes into your schedule whenever you need to cross the floor, even if you are trying to get to one of the upstairs panel rooms like Room 6A.
Not all of the excitement happens inside the convention. All across the downtown San Diego area are outside installations known as in the industry as “activations.” Some promote upcoming films and television shows. Others, like Fox’s carnival on the green in front of the Hilton Bayfront Hotel, promote an entire brand of entertainment. Each offers unique experiences and free stuff, and most do not require a Comic-Con badge to enter. They also have their own line management situations and typically ask for an email address as a condition of entering. A seemingly small price to pay for, say, a Tick t-shirt or a walk through the Los Angeles of Blade Runner 2049.
If time is of the essence, the Unofficial SDCC Blog Twitter account runs wait-time updates on panels, autograph sessions, and offsite activations throughout the weekend. It is an absolutely invaluable resource if you are trying to pack in as much Comic-Con as you can.
And, of course, you should stop by the Hard Rock for Rotten Tomatoes’ own live show, Your Opinion Sucks. Want to vigorously defend Justice League? Or tell the world why the goings-on in Westeros are totally overrated? Your Opinion Sucks is your opportunity to sound off at professional critics and let them know what they got wrong – and hear from surprise guests as you do. The show runs Thursday to Saturday at 5pm and entry is on a first-come, first-serve basis. Full details here.
But if you do not have a badge and enjoy the offsite activations, keep one thing in mind: only people with badges will be allowed to cross Harbor Drive onto the Convention Center property this year. This will make getting to the Fox carnival harder if not impossible as the green is adjacent to the Convention Center lot.
Also, while it is tempting to spend 13 hours a day going Con-crazy, consider stepping away from the Convention Center and the downtown area to experience more of San Diego. It has a great zoo, a stunning number of local breweries and, of course, more than a few beaches. All of which offer great ways to decompress from the noise and congestion in and around the Convention Center.
Let’s say you do spend all day inside the Convention Center and plan to meet up with friends for dinner in the downtown area, you should plan for that dinner to be much later for a number of reasons:
1. The floor closes at 7pm and attendees flood out toward the only convenient exit from the Convention Center to downtown San Diego’s Gaslamp district at 5th Avenue and Harbor Drive.
2. On some nights, that way is blocked by a mile-long freight train unconcerned with hungry conventioneers trying to get to the many eateries on the other side of the tracks. In recent years, the train has been known to cross as late as 9:30pm, but as it always has the right of way, consider leaving the Convention Center at 6pm or staying for a panel until 8pm. There is one other way to cross into downtown San Diego – the Harbor Drive Pedestrian Bridge connecting the Hilton Bayfront and Petco Park – but be sure to pencil in an additional 15 minutes to your dinner destination if you use it.
Another option is a leisurely stroll up the marina behind the Convention Center and the nearby hotels. There are a few high-price dining options there as well, but the key idea is to relax while everyone else gets packed into the tiny space at the intersection of 5th and Harbor.
But the 7pm Freight Train is just the biggest and loudest example of the most important thing to know when navigating Comic-Con: your plans will be upended. Like the train, take it slow. Instead of planning six things you must see per day, try for two. Look at all the waiting as moments to relax. You made it to Comic-Con, that’s a victory right there, even if you never get to see John Barrowman.