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How to Hack Comic-Con—Whether You Have a Badge or Not

How to Hack Comic-Con

Tips for making the most of the Comic-Con experience, even if you don’t have a ticket

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The yearly arrival of Comic-Con International brings legions of fanboys and fangirls to San Diego every July for a celebration of swords, superheroes, and sci-fi fare.

The annual convention, which got its start in 1970, now ranks as one of the largest events of its kind in the world, typically attracting more than 160,000 attendees to the San Diego Convention Center and surrounding Gaslamp Quarter every summer. What originally began as an event catering to comic-book fans has grown into a massive, multimedia affair that attracts top Hollywood studios and television networks looking to connect fans with the next (or current) blockbuster or hit series. For one week every July, downtown San Diego turns into fandom central.

After a two-summer absence due to the pandemic, Comic-Con 2022 returns with a few updates. Several panel discussions, screenings, and other events will take place outside the convention center itself—including ballrooms and meeting spaces at the nearby Marriott Marquis and Marina Hotel, Hilton San Diego Bayfront, and Omni San Diego, as well as the eye-popping, nine-story San Diego Central Library. Participants at official Comic-Con events must adhere to COVID-19 guidelines—namely, to wear a mask and show proof of full vaccination or a negative test within the past 72 hours.

Whether you’re attending for the first or 20th time, or are simply looking for the best people-watching spots, these tips will make your Comic-Con experience a memorable one.

Comic-Con events you don’t need a badge for

The number of events happening in San Diego near the convention center grows every year, and many of them don’t require a pass to attend.

A few hotels in the Gaslamp Quarter offer their own public events during the convention, and some are even free. The Rooftop Cinema Club at the Manchester Grand Hyatt will do special paid-admission screenings (including Guardians of the Galaxy and Venom: Let There Be Carnage), while the Hard Rock Hotel San Diego will host an escape-room-style experience based on the creepy-workplace Apple+ series Severance. Outside the Omni, in an area known as the Gaslamp Diagonal, free events will he happening all weekend, such as games and photo ops related to The Bob’s Burgers Movie and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.

Or, head across the street to the San Diego Padres’ home stadium for the free-admission Petco Park Interactive Zone. Play video games (register for your time slot), make the rounds through special photo ops, and partake of food trucks such as the Hello Kitty Café Truck and the Star Trek Wrath of P’Khan Coolhaus.

A few restaurants in the Gaslamp Quarter typically get in the spirit by offering their own specials. The Blind Burro, for instance, has created a Boba Fett Basil Tatooin-arita, a margarita enhanced with mango and blueberry boba, while The Deck at Moonshine Flats and Cerveza Jack’s Gaslamp both salute Stranger Things with drinks including the Demogorgon (featuring dragon-fruit vodka) and The Upside Down (vodka, ginger beer, blackberries, and sage leaves).

At bar and music venue Tin Roof, check out the pop-up Mooby’s, a nod to the fast-food restaurant featured in Kevin Smith films such as Clerks, Dogma, and Chasing Amy. Order a Chronic Con, a twist on Societe Brewing Company’s flagship IPA, The Pupil—fans will note that the special-edition beer can pictures fictional comic book characters from Smith movies.

You can also sample Chronic Con at Societe’s tasting room, located near the city’s foodie-magnet Convoy District, then browse the comic book selection at nearby Southern California Comics. The comic book store, one of San Diego’s best, will co-host a movie night with Societe at the tasting room on July 20.

Head to Liberty Station, a few minutes from downtown, to do the Comic-Con Treasure Hunt during any day of the convention. Look for the Infinity Stone and turn it in at Bottlecraft for a prize.

After the convention, spend an evening at the USS Midway on August 11, when the retired aircraft carrier will host the concert Candlelight: Favorite Superhero Themes. The candle-illuminated concert by the Listeso String Quartet will include music associated with Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Black Panther.

The schedule of events is updated frequently—right up to and throughout the show, in fact—so keep an eye out for information about fan parties and meet-ups being held during the week, as many of them are open to the public. Bookmark the Unofficial Blog’s Guide to Comic Con and the Comic-Con Blog for the most up-to-the-minute schedules of events.

Don’t miss the Comic-Con Museum

Opened in early 2022, the year-round Comic-Con Museum in Balboa Park offers both rotating and permanent exhibits that celebrate superheroes, sci-fi, gaming, and fantasy. Check out the cosplay exhibit, for instance, showcasing outfits created and worn by fans at the Comic-Con Masquerade over the years.

In 2022, the museum’s main exhibit is the multimedia Spider-Man: Beyond Amazing, which traces the iconic superhero over the decades, and other exhibits include Eight Decades of Archie and The PAC-MAN Arcade, featuring several rare game consoles for hands-on fun. On July 20, the museum will host Night at the Comic-Con Museum to induct Spidey into the Museum Character Hall of Fame with live entertainment, special guests, and food and drink. 

Where to go for great Comic-Con people-watching

Much of the area surrounding the San Diego Convention Center will be in full-on Comic-Con mode throughout the show, but there are a few local landmarks you’ll want to visit to make your experience complete.

The claim to fame for Kansas City Barbeque, which is located a few blocks north of the convention center, is that it’s where the famous Tom Cruise “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” scene from Top Gun was filmed. Even if you’re not a fan of the 1980s flick, the popular bar and restaurant provides excellent people-watching opportunities from its patio, which happens to sit along one of the main routes to and from Comic-Con.

A trip to Comic-Con isn’t complete without a stop at Tin Fish Gaslamp on Sixth Avenue. Famous for its fish tacos, the restaurant is another popular gawking location that offers a great view of both the Comic-Con crowds and the harbor, and you’re likely to spot more than a few comic creators and guests of the show enjoying a quick bite during the weekend. 

On that note, if you’re looking to hobnob with Comic-Con royalty, the surrounding hotel bars and lounge areas are popular meeting places for the show's guests and attendees once the convention center closes its doors each day. The common areas at nearby hotels like Manchester Grand Hyatt can offer a great opportunity to extend the Comic-Con experience after the sun goes down. 

What to look for inside Comic-Con

If you’re fortunate enough to have a badge to the convention, check the Comic-Con website for the show’s schedule of programming, which is typically released two weeks before the show and tends to be updated as changes occur. Below are a few must-sees, regardless of what you’re planning to do during the show.

Hall H is where all the big movie studios reveal footage and make major announcements, so you typically have to line up extremely early—sometimes a full day—to gain access to particular events. In recent years, the Comic-Con staff have occasionally issued wristbands to attendees lining up far in advance of Hall H events, so it's worth asking Comic-Con staff (either via email in advance or on-site when the show starts) about the best way to ensure you'll get a seat this year.

The annual Comic-Con Masquerade costume contest is typically held on Saturday evening during the show, and attracts some of the most creative cosplay artists you’ll find at any convention. Sure, you’ll see a mass of Spider-Man and Harley Quinn costumes wandering the halls, but these elaborate costumes will rival anything you’ll see in a blockbuster movie. 

If you’re looking to hobnob with your favorite comic artists and illustrators at the show, make your way to Artists’ Alley. Many artists take commissions at the show, and some even do free sketches. It’s also possible to cross paths with them and other Comic-Con royalty by grabbing a seat at the bars and restaurants inside the convention’s participating hotels, as well as at nearby hotels like Manchester Grand Hyatt. These spots will likely be popular meeting places for the show's guests and attendees once the convention programs end each day.

Finding your own Comic-Con HQ

If you don’t already have accommodations booked for the show, the challenge of finding a hotel room could prove difficult—but not impossible. Check Comic-Con’s hotels page for the latest information on availability. The site gives a list of participating hotels and tells you the current status of those offering special Comic-Con rates and room packages.

Given the early rush to reserve as many rooms as possible, there will typically be quite a few cancellations in the lead-up to the show. Call hotels directly to enquire about room availability—the hotels farthest from the convention center are likely to free up earliest.

When investigating room availability, keep San Diego's mass transit system in mind—the city’s expanding trolley service now heads east and south to La Mesa, National City, and Chula Vista, and north to La Jolla. The Coaster commuter train, meanwhile, connects to North County beach towns such as Solana Beach, Encinitas, Carlsbad, and Oceanside. Both are viable options to reach the convention center without driving—and thereby widening your selection of hotels.

Helpful Comic-Con tips

• If you can wait to buy souvenirs (and it’s not in danger of selling out), do it on Sunday. All the vendors will be motivated to sell the last of their merchandise so that they won’t have to ship it home. If you want to buy anything exclusive to this year’s show or commission an artist for a drawing, however, do so as early as possible.

• Bring these essentials for a comfortable experience: A refillable water bottle, extra masks, poster tubes to protect any art you buy, sunscreen (in case you end up waiting in line outdoors for an event), an extra phone charger and battery, and comfortable shoes.

• When you do need a break from the crowds, venture outside the main convention hall in the direction of some of the smaller panel rooms, and you’ll find some relatively quiet hallways with space to sit on the ground and possibly an outlet for charging your phone.

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