The Fine Art of Getting In
Two weeks before the first full day of panels at San Diego Comic-Con, the official programming schedules will start to be released. If you’ve seen our Comic-Con By the Numbers posts (2013, 2014, 2015), you know there’s a lot of programming crammed into each day! Some are small, niche panels, while others will be huge juggernauts. How do you know when to get in line? Or decide when to bail and head for a back-up second choice? How you do decide how many panels you can fit in one day?
The truth is, getting into panels at Comic-Con is an art, not a science. There are too many variables to pinpoint exactly when a room will reach capacity. And sometimes, panels that should’ve been packed turn out to be ghost towns. All you can do is take stock of the information you do have and give it your best guess.
Details on wristbands, overnight camping, and pre-dawn lines are in their own guide. Here, we’re just talking about the best method to use in planning your schedule.
1. Take a first pass at the schedule and find the panels that have you most excited.
- Pick your can’t-miss panel. Deciding which panel to schedule your day around can be intimidating, but take a deep breath and choose wisely. What do you love, can’t experience elsewhere, and will offer something unique?
- Know the room capacity. Here’s a handy chart:
SDCC Room Capacity
|Harbor Ballroom (Hyatt)||2860*|
|Indigo Ballroom (Hilton)||2663|
|Playback Room (Omni)||800|
|Grand Hall D (Hyatt)||700|
|Horton Grand Theatre||550†|
|Neil Morgan Aud. (Library)||350|
|Shiley Events Suite (Library)||333|
- Check the schedule for what’s before and after your can’t-miss panel. Rooms are not cleared between panels at SDCC. You need to know what’s happening before (will the room clear out before your panel? You might able to line up a bit later) and after (will there be a room full of people waiting for the panel after yours? You’ll need to line up earlier).
- Who is appearing on these panels? You might see “Comi-Kev” and think it’s a nothing panel – but if you kept reading you’d notice it’s Kevin Smith’s annual popular Q&A/one man show. There are lots of panels with titles that belie the A-list guests attending!
- See what’s programmed around the same time in other rooms. Panels that share a similar interest might divide attention and reduce crowds. Likewise, if what you’re looking at is, say, the only TV panel for the afternoon, there might be a bigger crowd.
- For example: 2015’s “Sherlock” panel started just half an hour after “Doctor Who” ended – and in different rooms (Ballroom 20 and Hall H, respectively). These shows share a fanbase, and it normally isn’t possible to go to both. You would expect both panels to be packed, but splitting the crowd would have a small effect on both panels.
- Decide how close you really need to sit. Are you bound and determined to be in the front row? Or are you just happy being in the room? In big rooms like Hall H and Ballroom 20, the view of the stage isn’t really any better in the middle section than it is in the back – in either area, you’re probably going to be watching the large overhead video screens. (Fellow short people: you’ll probably see better if you seek out a spot in the back with a great screen view than a spot in the middle with a bad view of both the stage and the screens.) For many panels, skipping the campout and lining up very early in the morning still gets you a seat in the back of the room.
- On the day of (or night before), watch Twitter. If you’re trying to decide whether to sleep another hour or head down to get in line, try a Twitter search for the room or panel you’re interested in. (The most-used hashtags are #SDCC, #HallH, and #B20.) You can also use this to look for information on wristbands (Hall H) or cards (Ballroom 20) that will assign folks in line to a letter or color group. Is Ballroom 20 still handing out “B” cards? You’ve got plenty of time. Are they starting in on the fourth color group of Hall H wristbands? Then fly, you fool!
Use this plus your knowledge of your fan base to estimate how supply (of seats) will hold up against demand.
2. Once you know what your plan of attack is for your can’t-miss panel, you can start to plan the rest of your day.
- Read the schedule for the room you’ll be in for your can’t-miss panel. There might be something else in there that you really like! Because rooms are not cleared, it’s easy to stay in one room for a chunk of the day. You can even try to move up into a closer seat as fans leave earlier panels. (In keeping with the shark metaphor on this blog, we affectionately call this act “chumming” for seats.)
- For all the other panels you want to attend in different rooms, repeat step 1. Check the room capacity, the schedule for the room before and after the panel that interests you, etc. This time, though, you’ll be willing to cut things closer. It’s maddening to wait in line for 5 hours and not make it inside a panel. But if you sprint out of your can’t-miss panel to try for a panel in another room, wait 15 minutes in line, and then don’t make it in? Well, that’s not so bad.
- Account for travel time. Back-to-back panels are scheduled tight enough before factoring in how long it will take you to get to the next room. Getting between room 6A and room 2? No problem. Getting from Hall H to Ballroom 20? A challenge. Getting between the convention center and one of the programming venues outside (e.g., the San Diego Central Library or Horton Grand Theatre)? Forget it. And remember that big rooms take a long time to clear out – if all 6,500 people try to leave Hall H at once, it can take upwards of 20 minutes to make it outside.
- Plan ahead for meals and bathroom breaks. You can get a “bathroom pass” for re-entry in all rooms except Hall H, but it’s only good during the panel you are currently in. It does not allow you to enter a room at 10am, take a bathroom pass and wander the exhibit hall until 4:30pm, and then come back inside for your 5pm panel. It is perfect for leaving briefly to grab lunch, or to meet a friend outside dropping something off, or (obviously) to use the restroom. Otherwise, you need to build in a break in your day to leave the convention to eat. Alternatively, you can bring a meal with you. There is water available inside program rooms – bring a reusable bottle and refill it.
- Hall H technically does offer a “bathroom pass” – it’s supposed to be used when the lines for the bathroom facilities inside Hall H are too long. However, these have increasingly been abused the same way bathroom passes for other rooms have been (being auctioned off to people still in line, being used to go buy an exclusive collectible or get an autograph, etc.). Because there is food in the Hall H lobby and bathrooms inside Hall H, we won’t be surprised if Comic-Con begins to crack down on Hall H re-entry passes.
3. Now that you have your top-choice schedule set, pick your back-ups.
That “can’t-miss” panel? Come to terms now with missing it. It can be devastating to miss your favorite panel, but it’s always a possibility at Comic-Con. Find something else on the schedule that looks fun!
- Decide on your limit. At what time do you give up on the line for your can’t-miss panel and leave for your backup panel? If you’re in the last tent of the Hall H line on the plaza, Hall H is currently full, and you know most people inside are waiting for a panel after the one you want to see – well, it might be time to head for your backup panel. Decide in advance how much of your day you’re willing to sacrifice in line.
- Go exploring. Wander into a room without a line and see what’s happening inside! Throw a dart at the schedule grid and check out something random! Do you exclusively attend TV panels? Go to a comics panel. Is your entire weekend scheduled for Hall H and Ballroom 20? Go check out something in small spaces like Room 2 or the Central Library facilities. Discover something new!
- Don’t forget the rest of the con. Remember to schedule time to walk the exhibit hall, visit the offsite activations, donate blood, or just hit happy hour with friends. It’s easy to get caught up in the panel schedule and try to see everything. There are hundreds of panels on the schedule – you will always be missing something. Accept this and have fun seeing what you can!
- Remember that you have to do this all again tomorrow, too. You can run yourself ragged trying to dart between panels all day if you want. But do that too many days in a row and by Sunday you’ll be a cranky, exhausted mess. This is a five day event – it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Save some energy for the second half.