We all knew SDCC: Special Edition was going to be a smaller con that was very different from the juggernaut summer convention we’re used to. But with our expectations set accordingly, it was an enjoyable return for the SDCC diehards.
An SDCC without a full line-up of Hall H and Ballroom 20 programming was certainly a change for me – those are usually the things I plan my entire con experience around – but I knew I’d be without those things going into the con well in advance of me making plans to attend. I expected that this was going to feel like a local convention, but with my SDCC friends instead of my local friends, and a hotel room to return to at night instead of my own home. That’s exactly what it turned out to be, so I wasn’t at all disappointed. With all of those expectations set, I had an amazing time! And I would, without a doubt, attend a San Diego Comic-Con: Special Edition again, should the pandemic force a repeat performance. I hope it doesn’t, however. I hope we can return to normal soon, but if we have to do a second round of this, I’ll be there.
San Diego Comic-Con COVID-19 Protocols
I was incredibly impressed with the COVID-19 safety protocols at SDCC: Special Edition. The first step was verifying that everyone was either fully vaccinated or had a negative COVID test. The line for this verification was massive, but they went through the several thousand people in line in front of me in about 15 minutes. The process was smooth and hassle-free. Once they checked our documents, they funneled us through a row of volunteers with wristbands, and then sent us on our way to pick up our badges in Hall H (a very different Hall H than we’re used to, of course).
It was quick and efficient and felt well-practiced despite the fact this was their first time doing it. Should we need to do this in July, I don’t foresee it slowing down the convention experience by much. Perhaps it’ll add at most thirty minutes to the morning badge pick-up process, but I’m sure it’ll be workable after seeing how smoothly this went.
The next line of defense was mandatory masks indoors throughout the convention center property and optional masks outside. This wasn’t perfectly enforced – I saw a few people with masks below their noses, and a couple of exhibitors with masks below their chins. For the latter, however, I assume they had to have their lunch at their booth and don’t blame them too much for having a lack of options for where they could safely remove their mask to eat. It didn’t seem like any of the vendors were being willfully defiant at all, but just stuck at their booths with nowhere else to go for a break.
In general, the people that attended Comic-Con: Special Edition are diehard con attendees who want things to get back to normal, and having good mask discipline in indoor spaces is a huge part of getting things back on track. We know this, so we take the protocols seriously. Most people even wore their masks outside, even though that was optional, because we really want this whole pandemic thing to be over ASAP.
For a convention with tens of thousands of attendees, I could count the sloppy mask discipline violations on my fingers, which is a pretty darn good statistic. Keep in mind, however, that my observations are anecdotal and if someone else had a wildly different experience, that’s totally valid. I couldn’t be everywhere at once and if someone saw some particularly egregious violations, I would believe them. That just wasn’t my particular experience.
SDCC: Special Edition Crowd Size
Comic-Con International is always pretty quiet about their exact crowd size and attendance numbers. Sometimes numbers get around, like the commonly cited 130,000 attendees of the past few years that seems to be the convention’s maximum capacity, but you’ll never find an official breakdown with those numbers or anything on their official website. That said, if I had to guess based on the vibe I felt alone, I’d say this felt about a third of the size of their normal summer convention. Sections of the con felt crowded like usual, but huge stretches of the building were fairly vacant, with only a few wayward con-goers wandering around to see what they could see.
I ended up attending only two panels this time around, and neither had any sort of line to get in or presented any sort of challenge to find decent seats. At a regular SDCC, even the smaller fan-run panels felt crowded and a bit challenging, so this was a pretty big change from the norm. In fact, it felt even easier than some of the panels at my local convention, which is a heck of a lot smaller than even this reduced capacity SDCC. I largely attribute that to the panel offerings, which brings me to my next point…
Television and Movie Presence
There wasn’t much of a television or movie presence at the con for the Special Edition. There were a couple of television show-focused panels, but most were fairly small fandoms like Destination Fear, or generally fan-run panels with no official studio presence. The largest show presence was NBC’s La Brea, which set up the only sizable off-site event of the con across the street at the Tin Fish. There were a couple of smaller off-sites nearby, such as the Freak Brothers bus near the Hilton Bayfront, but La Brea was the only sizable one that felt like a normal TV show marketing effort. But, again, I expected this, so I wasn’t at all disappointed by it. I was surprised to even get that much.
The lack of large TV and movie properties meant that Hall H and Ballroom 20 had no real need to function as usual. Indeed, Hall H was used for badge pick-up as I previously mentioned, and Ballroom 20 was used for the Masquerade and not much else. The biggest room in use was 6DE, which ran the panels for the two aforementioned TV shows, as well as a few other popular panels. This means there were no massive lines or tents on the lawn between the con center and the Hilton Bayfront. There were no fans sleeping on the grass or along the back of the convention center. We all slept peacefully and comfortably in our rooms. And got adequate sleep. And got our money’s worth out of the hotels we were paying for. It was rather… nice. Different, but nice.
This also meant that there weren’t many large banners looming over the con center or the Gaslamp District. The Hilton Bayfront and the Omni were completely naked and the trams weren’t decked out with SDCC wraps like they usually are. I’ve genuinely never seen them in their raw form before, and will probably never see them like that again unless another COVID wave forces us to make do with whatever sort of con CCI can do given whatever conditions lay ahead.
SDCC Exhibit Hall
The exhibit hall was definitely smaller, and had a much different vibe. There were a few larger retailers, such as Bluefin and Funko, but without major studios like WB or HBO, the floor was dominated by artists, small press, independent retailers, and, yes, comic books. This was the place where it most felt like a local convention, and I spent more time here than I did any other SDCC prior. In fact, I probably spent more time on the exhibit hall floor this time around than all the other SDCC’s I’ve been to combined. I left with a handmade Kyber Crystal necklace and an actual comic book. Neither thing was a convention exclusive, but both were things I just happened upon by chance and chose to purchase on a whim.
The highlight of the exhibit hall was how cosplay-friendly it was. Usually, there is no room to move around, especially if you’re in a large costume with accessories like wings or weaponry. I rarely cosplay in general, and have never done so at SDCC due to the uncomfortable crowds. This time it felt like the floor was made for cosplayers. Booths had easily accessible photo opportunities and there was a long line of backdrops at the far end for all your cosplay photo opportunity needs. My group of Lokis had a blast finding interesting things to take pictures with, and it was honestly the highlight of the entire con for me.
But most importantly, the hall wasn’t deafeningly loud and shoulder-to-shoulder like it usually is. At a typical SDCC, I would make a precise plan about what booths I wanted to hit, get in to find what I want, and get out as soon as possible. This time around I wandered the floor thoroughly every day, and felt at peace while doing so. I will honestly miss this vibe when we return to our regular SDCCs. But a crowded and loud con floor is the trade-off for having the TV and movie panels that I love so dear, so I can’t have my cake and eat it too.
The Gaslamp District
The Gaslamp District was quiet. There weren’t many off-sites, besides the aforementioned La Brea set up across the street at the head of the Gaslamp, and there weren’t any street performers or throngs of protestors (though I did see one anti-vax protestor while I was in line for my badge on the first day, but the Gaslamp was free from them). The storefronts largely looked normal, and not like they dug out all their geek merch from their backroom to throw in the window for the con crowds like it usually does. None of the hotels or venues were taken over by companies for events and promotion. It was just… the Gaslamp District.
The largest difference was actually related to COVID-19 and not the con itself. Almost all of the food venues had outdoor seating along 5th Avenue in semi-permanent structures. These seating arrangements weren’t set up for us con-goers, however, but rather as an effort to enhance safety in our weird pandemic times while still serving guests as best as they could.
The same thing has happened in many places across the country in an effort to keep restaurants afloat during the pandemic while maintaining safety for their customers. Indeed, some of my favorite restaurants did not survive the pandemic, but a lot of my favorites, such as the Union and Broken Yolk, were still there. I’m grateful they’ve survived.
I Would Attend SDCC: Special Edition Again in a Heartbeat
If your primary motive for attending SDCC is Hall H and Ballroom 20 programming, you might not vibe with the Special Edition. These are usually central to my experience and I missed them greatly, so I get choosing to opt-out because of the lack of these very crucial aspects of the con. But a lot of what I love about the con was still intact – I saw my friends, I enjoyed the general convention atmosphere, I got to take in the scenery provided by the nearby bay, and I got to interact with my fellow geeks all day long in a way I’ve truly missed over the past two years.
I would without a doubt travel out to San Diego for a Special Edition again, no question. I only hope that if they do this again, they remember they have an app and update it accordingly. The app is still loaded with July 2019 programming, and that wasn’t entirely helpful. Thankfully I took thorough notes beforehand so it wasn’t a huge loss, but I would still like to have had it available.
Despite how much I enjoyed the chill vibe of the con, I do hope we can return to the same full-sized con that we’ve all grown to love over the years. This was a taste of normalcy and a small graceful step back into the con scene after more than two years away, but I want my July convention back in full force as soon as possible.
The only way that’ll happen is if we all do our part by getting vaccinated and masking up indoors. So let’s get this thing under control and meet up again next July in sunny San Diego. I miss the full con and look forward to its return this summer.
Author: Angel Wilson
Angel is the admin of The Geekiary and a geek culture commentator. They earned a BA in Film & Digital Media from UC Santa Cruz. They have contributed to various podcasts and webcasts including An Englishman in San Diego, Free to Be Radio, and Genre TV for All. They’ve also written for Friends of Comic Con and is a 2019 Hugo Award winner for contributing fanfic on AO3. They identify as queer.
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