I took my 10-year old daughter to Comic-Con 2017 in San Diego. It was my first time attending the convention since I had gone for 16 straight years starting in 1985 as a 14 year-old teenager who loved comic books. Based on our experience, I thought I’d share tips for attending Comic-Con with kids so that you can plan for next year.
What Comic-Con Use to Be Like
The convention was very different back in 1985. It was at the old Convention Center downtown (now called Golden Hall), by then already a little run down, with old linoleum floors, some stained ceiling tiles and a few flickering fluorescent lights.
I don’t remember seeing many women there back in 1985 (and we were all looking), except for a handful of female employees. Back then, the centerpiece of the convention was the dealers selling boxes and boxes of old, vintage comic books that were hard to find back in those pre-internet, pre-eBay days. It was more common to have panels of comic book professionals and publishers discussing their comic books than blockbuster movie stars.
There were also no crowds to fight back then. The biggest celebrity I remember meeting in those years was the septuagenarian creator of Batman, Bob Kane, who in 1988 was there at San Diego Comic-Con personally handing out buttons to the fans promoting the then-upcoming Batman movie by Tim Burton. I still have that button he gave me that day.
The subsequent worldwide blockbuster success of that 1989 Batman film seemed to permanently transform San Diego Comic-Con from a smallish, no-frills gathering of 30,000 teenaged guys and single, grown men, all dressed in rumpled T-shirts (or Hawaiian shirts for the “stout”) and shorts, all of whom loved comic books, into a famous worldwide event attended by well over 100,000 people, featuring celebrity guests including the biggest movie and TV stars, the scope of which was evolved to focus less and less on the titular comic books, and ever more on a broader, multimedia “geek culture.”
With fortuitous timing, the (then) new San Diego Convention Center was completed in 1989 as well, enabling San Diego Comic-Con to move to a new, much bigger building just as it was becoming more broadly popular.
It’s Definitely Different Now
As the scope has changed and the crowds have increased year-to-year since then, the demographics of San Diego Comic-Con have also evolved. By 1995, I would estimate that there were maybe 10% female attendees. When I went with my 10-year-old daughter last weekend, my impression was that the convention’s attendees were now 50% women and girls which is an incredible improvement. (In a related change, there were no more live female models in their 20s dressed in skimpy costumes surrounded by creepy middle aged men with cameras, and no more objectifying R-rated art displayed.)
If you consider taking your children to Comic-Con International: San Diego, as it has now been formally titled for many years, here are my suggestions beyond, of course, the necessity of registering for a ticket online on the very first day tickets are available in the Spring each year.
Children 12 and Under Are Free (Provided That You Can Score a Ticket)
In 2017, Comic-Con continued a very generous, long-standing policy of allowing children (ages 12 and under) free admission with a paid adult. In practice, this means it’s necessary to register yourself as the adult and purchase a ticket online when they first become available in the Spring each year. Then, you can bring your child with you on the day of the convention and, when you pick up your own badge onsite on the day, you may simultaneously get your child a free badge.
One big benefit of this policy applied in this way is that taking your child may be a game-time decision. Fantastic. If a child decides at the last minute not to go, you’ve lost nothing.
Go On Sunday
The convention has historically run from Thursday through Sunday one weekend each Summer, with a preview night on the preceding Wednesday evening. Going on Sundays has a number of advantages, even more so for parents with kids.
For one, it is the lightest attended day of the convention. There are a number of reasons for this phenomenon, including out-of-towners needing to depart on Sunday to get back to work on Monday. But one reason that I’ve noticed for decades, and heard remarked upon again by many others in the crowd when I went again in 2017, is that Saturday night is the traditional late night party night where many attendees typically stay out late in the bars and restaurants of the Gaslamp Quarter downtown, partying the night away. As a result, when the convention opens at 9:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, a good percentage of the paid and ticketed attendees are still blissfully asleep.
Additionally, the Comic-Con ends early on Sundays (at 4:00 p.m. in 2017). For parents with kids ages 12 and under, this is probably a good thing. When my daughter and I left at 3:00 p.m., we saw many of the same families we had entered with that morning leaving at the same time. It made no difference to us whether the convention ended at 4:00 p.m. or 8:00 p.m. We left at 3:00 p.m. after having spent six enjoyable hours there.
Lastly, probably because of all of the above, 1-day tickets for Sunday cost a less than they do for the other three days. In 2017, my Sunday ticket was $40, compared to a Thursday, Friday or Saturday ticket which would’ve cost $60. Given that a child is free with a paid adult, that meant my daughter and I attended Comic-Con for a full day for a total of only $40.
There is one downside to going to Comic-Con with kids (or without) on Sunday. Typically, the biggest Hollywood stars and most hyped events concerning new movies or TV shows tend to be held on Saturdays (and maybe Fridays). By going on Sunday you will likely miss out on the biggest events. But kids may not tend to care about that anyway. And chances are that, even if you went on a Saturday, those events would be so crowded that you wouldn’t be able to get into the limited-availability-seating for those types of presentations anyway.
If you have bought a one-day ticket, you will need to obtain your badge before entering the convention. This is an entirely separate line. This line can get really long, and can require a wait of well over an hour (or even a lot longer). If you’re going to Comic-Con with a child, long lines are one way to kill enthusiasm right out of the gate.
The good news is that there is a sure fire way to avoid this: go early. We got there on Sunday morning just after 8:30 a.m., an hour before the convention hall itself opened for the day at 9:30 a.m. The registration processing line seemed to have just opened at 8:30 a.m. We were among the first hundred or so people in line so we essentially walked right in, past a series of empty rope lines and switchbacks (foreshadowing a long wait later on). We had our badges and our complimentary gift bags and were all processed by 9:00 a.m., in about 20 minutes. (Though that did leave us cooling our heels, sitting on the floor of the convention hall for a half hour before it opened at 9:30 a.m.)
Take the Trolley
Parking in downtown San Diego can be a hassle, even if you can find a parking space, and is never free. Pedestrians perpetually walking around the several blocks of downtown surrounding Comic-Con (jaywalkers and not) slow street traffic frustratingly.
My strong advice is to take the trolley to the Convention Center. There is a Convention Center stop literally right in front of it. One need only cross the street at a crosswalk (manned by police during the convention, too). Personally, I favor parking at the Old Town Transit Center, which has a large parking lot and free parking, and taking the trolley from there. I’ve parked there and taken the trolley to rock concerts at Qualcomm Stadium, baseball games at Petco Park downtown, as well as to the downtown Convention Center (and even to Tijuana years ago) and never have had a problem. It’s only 4 or 5 stops (about 10 minutes) to ride the trolley from Old Town to the Convention Center downtown. Trolleys seemed to be arriving and departing on this route every few minutes. It was very convenient and clean, and full of other Comic-Con attendees, too. Even better, the cost of an all-day adult trolley ticket on weekends in 2017 is a mere $6 with, once again, children free on weekends. In essence, going to the convention this way allowed my daughter and I to park and ride to Comic-Con for a total of just $6.
Especially when going to Comic-Con with kids, you will need to break for lunch at some point. Inside the convention, there are carts in the halls selling Starbucks coffee, Mrs. Fields cookies, and various waters, sodas and snacks. The pricing is pretty much the same as you would find in an airport.
Inside the main Exhibit Hall at the back there are also a handful of concession stands like one might find at a baseball or football game, selling a typical assortment of nachos and pizza and soda and the like. The pricing is pretty similar to what you might expect at a Padres or Chargers game.
There are also a surprising number of picnic-style tables in front of these concession areas at which you may sit and eat. Based on this description alone, this may seem like a decent (if overpriced) option for lunch. And it is. I have bought pizza slices and hot dogs there in years past and been totally satisfied.
But. But. There is a big caveat to this: lines. Up until a little after 11:00 a.m., you can pretty much walk up to one of these concession areas and buy what you want with little or no line, and you can probably get a couple of seats at one of the tables. But starting just after 11:00 a.m., the lines just get longer and longer and longer. And the tables inevitably fill up as well. I saw some people who seemed to bring their own lunches. Some sat at those tables. Some sat outside the main convention hall on the floor in the hallways.
This isn’t the way I’d do lunch there. I leave. Your convention badge (when swiped by the RFID readers as you leave) enables you to come and go in and out of Comic-Con as you want all day. One option is to walk across the street from the Convention Center to have lunch in one of the myriad restaurants in the Gaslamp Quarter. But they are crowded, especially at prime lunch times. My preferred option was to hop back on the trolley (taking advantage of my all-day pass and that my daughter was free on the weekend). I offered her the option of eating in Little Italy or at Fiesta de Reyes in Old Town. She chose Old Town. So she and I took a break, hopped on the trolley, and went an enjoyed a leisurely 1-hour lunch of chips-and-salsa and burritos al fresco (and, for me, a couple of beers) with no wait and no crowds. Including the tip, our lunch was maybe $15 more than it would’ve been to stand in line for an unremarkable assortment of soda, nachos and hot dogs inside the convention hall (and maybe having to eat that standing up). And in Old Town, I was able to have a couple of festive beers, not available in the convention hall at any price. We found lunch off-site to be an enjoyable break, and a welcome chance to sit down in a relaxed environment for an hour. After lunch, we were recharged and happily took the trolley back to the Convention Center for more Comic-Con in the afternoon.
What are your best tips for attending Comic-Con with kids?
Top photo credit: Flickr/donabelandewen, Creative Commons 2.0