[Originally posted in 2016. Updated for 2023.]
My thirteenth San Diego Comic-Con is fast approaching, along with my 10th wedding anniversary! It was SO fun to return to SDCC last year after the pandemic shut it down for two years. SDCC 2023 promises to be quite different because of the two Hollywood strikes (writers and actors guilds).
With major studios skipping SDCC 2023, the panel schedule feels rather sparse compared to recent years. Most writers and actors won’t be able to attend to promote anything they’re working on with studios, though they can go to promote comic books or other projects they’re involved with outside their guilds. Will the exhibit hall be more packed than usual since there aren’t as many panels to spread attendees around throughout the convention center? We’ll find out soon.
Each year I like to share a post offering tips for SDCC newbies based on my own con-going experience. VERY long post ahead, nerds!
General Health Precautions
- Get vaccinated and boosted for COVID, if appropriate;
- Wear a medical quality mask while attending the event; and
- Obtain a negative COVID test result prior to attending the event.
Additionally, attendees can visit the information desks in the lobby for a face covering if they would like one.
I will say, the mask compliance last year was very impressive. This year I’ll still mask up inside the convention center, but I imagine there will be way less masking because it’s not required.
We’re All in This Together
Most folks are back to pre-pandemic life at this point. However, some people are still COVID-cautious, for a variety of reasons. So remember to respect others’ boundaries regarding personal space, masking, not wanting to dine indoors, go to parties, etc.
One very important tip is: be patient. Comic-Con can be trying for those who don’t enjoy waiting (so…everyone, basically). There WILL be a shit ton of people everywhere, all the time.
Waiting is just part of the SDCC experience. You’ll wait to buy coffee, use the bathroom, get into panels, participate in booth activities and activations, board SDCC shuttles, get a table at a restaurant, gain entry to parties, and even to cross the street to get to and from the convention center. Depending on which hotel you’re staying at, you may have to wait in line to take the elevator (I see you, Marriott Marquis). Just take a deep breath and enjoy the best people-watching in the world while you wait.
The official SDCC shuttles offer free rides to the convention center if your hotel isn’t within walking distance. As mentioned, there is often a line to board shuttles. Depending on your hotel’s location along its color-coded shuttle route, the first couple shuttles that come by may be full…so leave early if you want to arrive at the convention center by a certain time. The shuttles will not run 24/7 in 2023; check the shuttle schedule here. Uber and Lyft are obvious alternatives, but prices and wait times will likely increase during the con. Note that you have to have an SDCC badge in order to ride a shuttle.
Fuel for the Day
Carry water and snacks, especially if you’re expecting to wait on panel or activation lines for hours upon hours. Lines often idle for long stretches of time, offering ample opportunity to jump out and grab concessions. However, once a line starts moving you won’t want to leave, it so it’s a good idea to have refreshments with you. Plus, it’s cheaper to BYO than to buy the not-so-appealing concessions inside the convention center. I always bring a reusable water bottle with me; panel rooms usually have water filling stations inside, and there are water fountains throughout the convention center.
There’s a Ralph’s supermarket in the Gaslamp District on G Street at 1st Avenue, which is a good place to buy provisions when you arrive in town. There are a couple CVS locations downtown as well: one on 5th Avenue at J Street, the other on Market Street between 6th and 7th Avenues.
There’s a ton going on at SDCC at all times, and you might have a long to-do list. However, it’s wise to manage your expectations. Say there’s one panel you’re absolutely dying to see, but the room fills up and you can’t get in. Or you have your heart set on buying a con exclusive but it sells out before you get to the booth. These things happen, and not infrequently. So have a backup plan for something else you’d like to do or buy…or just choose to be okay with the randomness of it all. Sometimes simply going with the con flow can lead to fun and surprising experiences.
Be open to talking to strangers! Comic-Con is traditionally a magical place where it’s easy to meet like-minded people—especially if you’re waiting for hours to get into a panel. The overall “Excited Nerd” vibe sets the stage for bonding over shared interests and making new friends.
Keep Calm and Comic-Con
If you’re anxiety-prone, come prepared with some breathing and calming techniques as well as prescription anxiety meds if you have them. Meditation apps like Headspace, Calm, and Insight Timer (which has a free version) are good tools to have on your phone.
Need a break from the exhibit hall? There are quieter areas inside the convention center that you can seek out. Take the escalators upstairs on the Hall H end of the convention center—there’s usually space to sit on the floor, and security (probably) won’t ask you to leave. Another option is to pop into a random panel in one of the rooms and chill out in a back row. Don’t even try sitting on the floor in the main lobby or exhibit hall; security will invoke the Almighty Fire Marshal and tell you to get up.
The two hotels closest to the convention center (Marriott Marquis & Marina and Hilton Bayfront) also have lounge areas where you can go to escape, though open seats can be hard to come by.
Regarding when to get in line for particular panels or rooms, I don’t have much advice—I haven’t gone to many panels in recent years and the line situation is always evolving.
Generally speaking for the more popular panels in larger rooms: if it’s something you really want to see in person, get on line significantly earlier (like maybe even two hours earlier) than you thought you should. And I don’t mean two hours before the start of the panel…in recent years, joining the line two hours before a popular panel’s start time wasn’t even close to being enough time to get you in.
Hall H, Ballroom 20, and Room 6BCF have the largest capacities inside the convention center and offer arguably the most popular panels. Therefore, they’re the hardest to get into, though smaller rooms and Indigo Ballroom at the Hilton Bayfront can also be tough depending on the popularity of the topic and panelists. That said, given the strikes and the lack of Big Hollywood panels in the large rooms, who knows what those lines will be like this year.
In past years, Twitter accounts @HallHLine and @Ballroom20Line have offered real-time updates on what those lines are looking like. As of this writing it doesn’t look like these accounts are on Threads yet, but it can’t hurt to look for them there once the con starts. Checking the hashtags for panel rooms on Twitter can also give you a sense of what the wait is like in real time.
Hall H Hell
TBH, I don’t fully understand the Hall H line wristband system because I haven’t gone through the experience since they instituted it years ago. However, if you’re going to try for Hall H panels, make sure you understand how the wristbands work. Steel yourself for a shitshow; I feel like every year we hear about wristband distribution not running smoothly. I’ve even heard of people cutting the line with fake wristbands. NOT COOL.
Read this post on the official SDCC Toucan Blog for updated details on the Hall H wristband system. Many people spend a full day waiting on the Hall H line to get a wristband for access to the next day’s panels. So it’s up to you to decide if the panel you want to see is worth missing an entire day of the con.
Panel Return Policy
During panels, you can leave the room to use the bathroom or buy concessions. When you leave, you’ll be given a pass that allows you back into that room during that same panel only. If you return after that panel has ended, you’ll have to wait on line again to get back in. So time your trips accordingly! The exception to this rule is Hall H, which has restrooms inside as well as its own dedicated concessions stand just outside the hall.
Don’t Be That Person
During panels, don’t hold your phone or camera up to take photos and videos the entire time; you’ll block the view of people sitting behind you. If you want to take pics or a video—it’s okay, we all do it—just be quick.
Take Comic-Con from the Rear
The back (marina) side of the convention center used to be a mini respite from the indoor insanity. In recent years, the Hall H line has turned the marina into a giant nerd encampment. So…the marina side of the convention center has zero chill (see photo above), but it’s a whole experience in and of itself. There are some great bay views from the second floor terraces on the back side of the convention center, and the lawn behind the center is jam-packed with con-related activities and vendors. There’s also usually a no-frills taco truck stationed by the base of the stairs behind the convention center. You can get yummy breakfast tacos there if you’ve been waiting on the Hall H line all night!
TV Guide used to rent a yacht on the marina where they would interview and do photo shoots with the stars. IMDB took over the yacht starting in 2016, so there’s still great celeb-spotting along the marina. Now that the yacht activities are common knowledge, though, hanging out there to see celebrities has become a pretty wild scene. Due to the actors’ strike, though, Celeb Marina Mania may be a dud (I’m not 100% sure IMDB is even still doing the boat this year).
Cosplay is Not Consent
There is an unspoken etiquette for photographing cosplayers. Odds are that if someone is wearing a costume they probably won’t mind being photographed. BUT…it’s polite to ask for permission. After the cosplayer agrees and you’ve taken your photo, thank them and compliment them on their costume. Many cosplayers put tons of time, effort, creativity, and money into their costumes, and showing your appreciation to a fellow nerd is a kind thing to do.
Also: you will see many cosplayers showing a lot of skin. I have seen grown men—in front of their children, no less—taking pics of scantily clad women without their knowledge. This behavior is inappropriate and gross. Don’t be a creep.
Random celebrity encounters are a super fun element of SDCC, though this year they’ll likely be few and far between.
If you do encounter a celebrity, DO be respectful and DON’T get up in their face with your phone without asking. Some celebrities are quite open to posing for pics with fans at SDCC. But remember that many humans, famous or not, don’t enjoy being yelled at, touched, or having their personal space invaded by strangers.
Additionally, celebrities tend to be on very tight schedules at SDCC. They’re there for work, so they spend all day doing interviews, panels, photo shoots, and attending parties. Don’t take it personally if someone declines your selfie or autograph request—they may literally not have time. And if a celebrity handler or security person asks you to step back from a celebrity, just do it.
There’s a TON of stuff going on in the near vicinity of the convention center, whether it’s along the marina or across Harbor Drive in the Gaslamp District. The SDCC Unofficial Blog (a GREAT resource) has a calendar dedicated to offsite info. Note that offsite activations often have lines just as long as panel lines, so plan your timing accordingly for activations that you have your heart set on.
There are plenty of parties during SDCC; some of them require an official SDCC badge for entry, some don’t. I recommend wearing your badge when you head out for the night in case the evening takes you somewhere that requires a badge. You do not want to schlep back to your hotel room to grab it. So many folks wear their badges at parties…no one will think you’re a weirdo if you have one around your neck.
Here’s a list of items I recommend packing, in addition to standard packing lists:
- Face Masks. If you’re so inclined.
- Hand Sanitizer. Duh.
- COVID-19 Rapid Tests. Much easier to have these in your room than to run to CVS or find a testing site if you start having symptoms.
- Comfortable, broken-in shoes. SDCC is not the time to break in new shoes. You’ll get your steps in.
- Gadget chargers/extra batteries. Available outlets are often in short supply, so an external charger is key.
- Refillable Water Bottle. As discussed above.
- Meds: OTC and any prescriptions, if needed. Bring extra RX meds in case of return flight delays.
- Travel Kleenex. Necessary for when you end up in a bathroom stall that’s out of TP.
- Deodorant. An SDCC given is that some people stink. Don’t be one of them.
- Sunscreen (minimum SPF 30). Unless you attend panels all day long, you’re going to spend at least time in the San Diego sun. And some panel lines end up outdoors (especially Ballroom 20, Indigo Ballroom, and Hall H).
- Sunglasses. Easy to forget to pack.
- Fold-up tote bag. Perfect for carrying smaller purchases & can easily be stowed in your purse, backpack, or fanny pack when not in use.
- Light jacket, hoodie, or sweater. July in San Diego is warm, but the convention center can get chilly. The temp drops at night, and if you’re in the Hall H line on the marina at 3am (I’ve been there) you’ll want an extra layer.
- Towel or mini fold-up chair. Recommended for the the Hall H line. Sitting on concrete for hours can be painful, so at the very least, pack a towel to fold up and sit on.
- Cash. Not sure if this is necessary anymore, as many vendors only take cards now. But it can’t hurt to have a little cash.
Additional Packing for Collectors
- Poster tube. If you plan to buy posters, you’ll need a tube to transport or ship them home intact. If you forget to pack a tube, there’s a mail supply store in the Marriott Marquis lobby (and probably most other nearby hotels) where you can buy a poster tube and other packing materials.
- Sharpie and notebook. If you’re an autograph seeker, you’ll want to have these in case you run into a celebrity whose autograph you’d like to ask for.
- Extra Baggage. If you expect to buy a lot of stuff, pack a fold-up duffel bag or something similar inside your luggage. Every attendee receives a giant con bag, but it’s not super sturdy and doesn’t have a closure so it’s not good for carrying on or checking on a plane.
Last but not least…SDCC can be very overwhelming, but try to remember take it all in and HAVE FUN! I think that’s about it—I hope this post has been helpful. See you at Comic-Con!