While cons now occur year round, traditionally they have been summer events. Coming up in the next month are some of the biggest cons for fans of comics and manga. July kicks off with Anime Expo in Los Angeles, CA, the middle is filled with Otakon on the east coast in Baltimore MD, and ends with the San Diego Comic Con in San Diego, CA, which is celebrating 40 years this year.
Maybe you or your kids have shown an interest in attending one of these, or one of the many smaller cons that happen all over the country, but you’ve never been to a genre convention before. What do you do? What should you expect? And what about the kids? I’ve been going to cons since I was a Tween, and have been taking my own kids to them for the last 5 years. I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve learned about surviving them, especially with kids.
Basic Con Survival Guide
First, a few things that you should know/do when going to a comic/anime/manga/sci-fi convention:
Wear comfortable clothes and shoes. This is a must no matter if it’s a one day con, or a full 5 days. You are going to be spending a lot of time on your feet; walking around, standing in line, etc. And no matter what the weather is like outside, inside the convention area is going to get hot, especially if it’s crowded. Lots of bodies together in a small area put off a lot of heat. T-shirts are great con wear, as are jeans and/or shorts.
Bring a bag and/or backpack. If you’re going to a con, you are going to hit the dealers room, and invariably buy something. Not all vendors will have bags for purchases, and you don’t want your arms full as you walk around. It’s also good for carrying other supplies.
Bring water and snacks. A bottle of water and something to snack on, such as granola bars, trail mix, or pretzels fit perfectly into the above mentioned bag. Convention centers love to charge an arm and a leg for water and food. You don’t’ want to waste potential purchasing power on a $3 bottle of water. Bottles can be easily refilled at fountains, and snacks keep you going until you break for a real meal, preferably outside the con.
Check out the area before going. Get a map of the area and find out about parking, places to eat, etc around the convention center and/or your hotel. It’s no fun when you’re starving and are wandering around with no idea where the closest McDonald’s is. Larger cons like SDCC will have these things available online and in your registration packet. Google Maps, Mapquest, or your favorite GPS can help as well. It’s just easier to know these things if you’ve only got an hour between panels and want grab a snack.
Check out the schedule before going. Larger cons will also have their events listed online. Go through the lists and figure out what panels or guests you want to see and what rooms they will be in. This way you don’t miss anything, and can figure out if you can walk or have to run to the next panel. This is especially important if going to SDCC, as there are now at least 1 hour long waits for most panels. There is no just walking in to a room and grabbing a seat anymore. And when you get to the con, pick up the daily update. These list changes to the schedule that have happened since it was printed. This will save you from going to a room and finding out too late that the panel was moved.
Bring something to do while you’re in line. Whether it’s for getting your badge, getting into a panel room, or an autograph, you are going to be standing in a line. Having something to do will make the time go by faster. Sometimes you will be next to someone outgoing who’ll strike up a conversation, but if not, it’s good to have something to distract you. Books, cell phone, mp3 player, etc, anything is better than staring up at an unmoving line, wondering if it’s ever going to move.
Parents Taking Kids
So, you went to cons where you were young, but now you’re married and have kids. What do you do? If you child is 0-5 years, don’t take them. This isn’t a bonding experience with the child. They aren’t going to remember any of it when they grow up, it’s going to mean more work for you feeding and changing them, the crowds may scare them, and pushing a stroller down a crowded aisle that barely fits two people, let along a stroller isn’t going to win you any points with your fellow attendees or the vendor who’s table you’re blocking. Either wait to go until they are older, or leave them with family and go on your own.
So, your kid’s old enough to handle himself in crowds and can express his own interest in things. 6-7 years old is a good age to start them at a con. This is the age we started both our girls at with good results. Something we learned from taking just our oldest is bring something for the kids to do.
Your kids might like some of the things they see at the con, but they aren’t going to be interested in everything you are, especially a panels. They get bored and restless, bothering you and the other attendees. It needs to be something that is quiet and can be done in the dark, as many panels dim the lights to show clips or slides. What worked best for us was portable video games. Systems such as the Nintendo Gameboy Color and/or Advanced are inexpensive and readily available in game shops that sell used games and systems. You can also get a Nintendo DS used for a reasonable price. The DSes can be fun for kids as they have a wifi connection, and can connect to other DSes (presumably in the hands of other kids), and they can IM with PictoChat. My oldest daughter had a lot of fun doing this last year. MP3 players are also a good option. They can drown out the world around them in their music. Many smart phones, such as the iPhone/iPod Touch, Blackberry, etc. have games for kids that you can download and they can play while you’re occupied.
Kids Going Alone (13+)
So, you’re a parent that’s never been to a con, and your kid(s) want to go to this comic/anime/manga con thing going on over the weekend. What should you do? How do you prepare so it’s safe and fun for both of you?
Besides everything mentioned in the basic con guide, here are a few more suggestions:
If it’s their first con, only go for one day. Cons can be overwhelming, with so many sights and sounds. Start out slow, and work your way up to going for multiple days.
Have an older friend or sibling go along. They don’t have to be tethered at the hip, but make sure the person is at and/or can get into the con. Let them be like a security blanket; stay with them for a while until they feel confident to go on their own.
Make sure to arrange a specific meeting place before going. Pick a prominent place or landmark, preferably near a light, to drop off and pick up your child. Arrange a time with your child to pick them up, before they go in.
Make sure they have a way to get a hold of you. Not all kids have cell phones nowadays, but there are other ways to make phone calls. You could give them change to only be used for phone calls, but change jangling in a pocket will get spent. Better to get a prepaid phone card that they can use to call if there’s a problem, they are going to be late, or they get asked by a friend to go home with them.
Go with your child up to registration. Even if you can’t go inside, you can take a look around the building and maybe even peer into the dealers room, to get an idea what they will be seeing as well. Talk to the people at registration, or ask to speak to someone in charge. Don’t be afraid to ask them basic questions about the appropriate age level, security and emergency procedures for the con. The more you know, the better you’ll feel about leaving them.
If you chose to go with your child, let them take the lead. This is their playtime. Just like when going into a toy store, let them lead you around and show you what they like. Ask questions, and let them show off their knowledge even if you don’t quite get it the way they do. Browse tables yourself, and show an interest so your child doesn’t feel embarrassed than you’re there. They will most likely anyway, no need to make it worse. If they want to go to a panel, follow the "Bring something" rule. This can turn out to be a bonding experience, if you let it.
Don’t be afraid to let your child attend. Going to a con is a lot like going to the mall with a WHOLE LOT of friends you don’t know yet. Genre fans are really very friendly and helpful, especially with their own. That scary looking guy with the orange hair and big sword is probably more likely to help your child than someone passing by them at the mall.
I’ve tried to include everything I could think of in this article, though I wouldn’t be surprised if I missed something. Genre conventions are fun and a great experience for both kids and adults. Being prepared just makes it all that more enjoyable. If you have any other suggestions, please leave a comment. The more the merrier.