Back in March 2016, Aithne – a blogger, posting under the name Capital Gamer – got in touch with me, letting me know about a fantastic post that she’d put up on her site, one which I read and felt was an essential reference for parents, thinking of taking their young ‘uns to a convention of the scale of San Diego Comic-Con.
What Aithne talks about is relevant to her own experiences at SDCC; however, it’s easy to see how to translate her words of advice to events like New York Comic Con, Wizard World, Emerald City Comic Con, MCM London Comic Con… You catch my drift. Do enjoy. (First published on AN ENGLISHMAN IN SAN DIEGO, 2nd March 2016)
Capital Gamer: “Okay, so I’m not a prolific blogger – thanks in part to a toddler, with another one on the way, balanced with a full-time job. But the recent San Diego Comic-Con Open Registration reminded me that I never posted anything about our experience at SDCC 2015 with a 15-month old.
When planning (and I take my planning seriously), there were few online resources for Con-going parents and a lot of unknowns, so I want to share some tips with anyone out there who may be going to SDCC 2016 with one or more young children in tow.
Cosplaying? Things to Consider.
Packing. We always cosplay at the cons, and that can have a big impact on logistics with the kid factor, especially little ones. Packing limitations and baggage fees on flights can be a real issue when you add up your cosplay pieces in addition to baby/toddler gear. One option to minimize volume is to plan on stocking up on baby essentials once you arrive in San Diego. Another option is to ship out portions of your cosplay gear in advance, if you are staying somewhere that accepts packages (see accommodations section below), or to a local friend if you are lucky enough to have one down there.
Cosplay Preparation and Execution. Select your cosplay ensembles carefully!
- Don’t traumatize your kid. If you plan to do something that significantly alters your appearance, or anything that could be scary for a young one, I strongly recommend you get your kid familiar with the cosplay well before Comic Con by putting it on in front of them at home. If they react poorly and don’t acclimate to your cosplay appearance, you may want to rethink your choice so you don’t end up walking around with a screaming kid at the Con. Since we did Mad Max on one day of SDCC last year and my husband and daughter were Master Blaster, we let her see my husband put on the helmet and gear several times to make sure she was comfortable with it. Fortunately, she was!
- Preparation time. If you think preparation for cosplay is a long process without kids, multiply that times two or three with a toddler’s schedule in the mix. Plan for a less intensive cosplay (less make-up, less assembly on-site, etc) to minimize the stress and have realistic expectations about how early you are going to get out and about for the day’s activities.
- Cosplay construction, assembly and accessories. It is widely accepted that babies and toddlers love to grab, pull, and stick things in their mouths. Especially colorful, shiny things. If you are going to be wrangling your kid while in cosplay, it may not be a great idea to have an ensemble with lots of small, shiny parts, sharp edges and or embellishments that are easy to pull off–in addition to creating wardrobe malfunctions, it can also result in some unanticipated choking hazards! This is something that I wish I would have taken more seriously when planning our cosplays for SDCC last year.
When assembling my fairly elaborate Princess Aura cosplay, I
didn’t fully consider how appealing all the beading and sequins
would be for my 15 month old. This photo also captures the
reality of hauling a toddler through Gaslamp in cosplay.
The Accommodations Dilemma
Lodging is something that all SDCC attendees struggle with–the hotel reservation process sounds almost as stressful as the online badge registration process! Even before we had kids we opted for the vacation rental option. If you are going with more than just a couple folks, financially it can be as costly to stay in individual hotel rooms as it is to rent a two bedroom condo for the week. With children, having the flexibility of a kitchen to prepare your own meals and a living space for your kid(s) can be even more beneficial. It may be a little late now to secure something for SDCC 2016, but you can try your luck with listings on Homeaway.com, Flipkey.com, TripAdvisor, and vrbo.com.
Typically, property managers or owners release their properties for the week of SDCC around the beginning of the year (if not sooner), but they usually rely on wait lists from past inquiries to send such notifications…so it’s never too early to do your research on vacation rentals. It’s well worth the advance planning; we stayed in a one bedroom unit in Gaslamp, walkable to the grocery store and Convention Center, and the convenience saved us a lot of stress.
I admit that, as a non-parent attendee at SDCC, I used to judge parents that were pushing around their SUV-strollers through the crushing crowds around the Convention Center. Why aren’t they using a baby carrier? Well, as a parent now, I’ll tell you — San Diego is hot in July, and your toddler will be hot, cranky and uncomfortable in one of those carriers after about 15 minutes of walking around Gaslamp, leaving you with carrying them by hand (back-breaking after a morning of walking around) or trying to track them on a baby-leash through the crowds.
That being said, it’s really annoying pushing around a stroller, to the point that we opted to not even try taking her into the actual Convention Center. Not even worth the hassle. I don’t have a great solution for this problem, but it was certainly a thorn in our sides for getting around the heart of the Con and something about which you should manage your expectations.
What Events are Kid-Friendly, Really?
It was a bit more challenging than we anticipated to find truly kid-friendly venues around Comic-Con. Our 15-month old could only gawk at the parade of costumes in Gaslamp for so long from her stroller before we needed someplace she could roam around and touch stuff. These options are far and few between, at least for the really young audience. A shout out to NerdHQ, the Nerdist Conival and Petco Interactive Zonefor providing the more kid-friendly sites around Gaslamp that were not suffocatingly crowded and allowed us to keep track of our toddler wandering around.
- Thumbs up to the FX Fearless Zone for allowing my husband and me to “swap out” watching our daughter outside each activity so that both of us could enjoy the events without losing our place in line.
- Thumbs down to the Adult Swim Carnival for not exercising some latitude with their 18+ policy…. they denied us entry with our toddler to their general outdoor carnival area even though we just wanted to swap out who was watching her so we could go into the different attractions. I understand it’s a liability thing, but my kid could just as easily look at their booth “visuals” from outside the gate as from inside.
We decided that the density of the crowds inside the Convention Center was not worth the effort of bringing our toddler in, not to mention the inability for our toddler to actually see anything without waiting in a long line – an unfortunate feature of almost anything at SDCC, not compatible with a toddler’s attention span. That being said, SDCC has recognized the logistical complications of toting a young one around the Con, and offers a sort of day care service near the Convention Center where you can pay by the hour. We didn’t use this service — wasn’t really comfortable with the idea given the age of our daughter — but this might be a great option to utilize for parents with slightly older kids.
Some events, like the Ghostbusters Mass Hysteria Party, were
held at bars, but staff were generally welcoming and we just
made it work.
The Morning Advantage
Okay, so maybe it’s not much of an advantage since Gaslamp District is pretty sleepy in the mornings. But with a toddler in tow, the mornings are the best time to get out and about: streets are less crowded, your kid is energized and likely in a better mood, and you may be able to get the jump on some of the SDCC off-site attractions that are impossibly crowded later in the day. Do your research in advance to see what activities open earlier in the day and take advantage of being the early bird!
Food, Glorious Food
Eating In: A general good strategy with or without kids: make a run to the grocery store at the beginning of your trip to stock up on portable snacks, beverages, and breakfast items. This is even more necessary with children. You will be hard pressed to keep babies/toddlers from having a meltdown after a few hours without stopping for snack time or lunch–and asking them to be patient at a sit-down restaurant may be a bridge too far.
Eating Out: I would recommend avoiding restaurants as much as you can with a toddler…the wait is too long at most places, and by the time you are seated you’ll be left shoveling in your food while your kid has a meltdown. The only pro is that most places are so noisy, your kid’s screams will likely be drowned out by all the other activity. If you do want to eat out, here’s my recommendations based on our limited experience:
- The best strategy we found was to order something as take-out and head over to the less chaotic open green space at Petco Park. We ordered some awesome sandwiches at Brickhouse Deli (adjacent to the green area) and brought our food over to the grass and had a picnic-style dinner outside with the kiddo. It was probably the least stressful meal that we had and a lot of fun.
- The second-least stressful meal we had was at Diwali on 5th. We had a reservation for our group of eight, they had a table almost immediately, and seated us in an area where it wouldn’t matter much if our toddler started screaming. But service was fast, food was delicious (if you like Indian food), and we had a meltdown-free meal.
- The Panera Bread by Horton Plaza opens early for breakfast and has both take-out and online ordering/rapid pick-up options…all good features when you have kids with limited stay-time in restaurants.
My Plug for the San Diego Zoo.
I know, it’s a crazy idea. You came to San Diego for Comic Con and not to see the city. But if you have young kids I strongly suggest you consider a day away from the Con with your kids to go to Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo. It’s too good to miss, family-friendly and can compete with the best spectacles your kids may see at the Con. Well worth a trip and only about 10-15 min from Gaslamp (public transportation accessible).
FINALLY: HAVE REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS!
By realistic expectations, I mean expectations consistent with all the crazy SDCC factors — those I have mentioned above — paired with the everyday realities of being a parent. Know that your kid will still likely need that afternoon nap time, some snacks, and a break from the over-stimulation. Accept that unless you make plans to trade off child care duty with your spouse, take a shot in the dark with a sitter, or have a really nice SDCC friend who can watch your kid, most evening events may be a no-go for you.
To be honest, the toddler-parent experience we had at SDCC 2015 was fun, but was enough of a shift from our past experiences that we’ve decided to write off SDCC for several years until our kids get older. But every kid is different, parents are different, and the trade-offs may still make it worthwhile for you depending on your situation.
My experience is by no means comprehensive. If you are an SDCC parent who has done the Con with a toddler in recent years, and have additional advice to offer, please include it in the comments below so everyone can benefit!
Thanks to Aithne for this brilliant piece: to show your appreciation, please do check out her blog and subscribe.