Thursday, February 27, 2014

(Un)conventional: 10 tips for surviving Comicon with kids

One of my 'Before I Go' goals was to visit a Comicon-style geek convention. I would have loved a big trip to San Diego for the massive Comicon there, immersing myself in fandom after fandom and getting all swoony over the geek icons. But Dear Boy and a complete lack of international travel funds meant we were limited to the local area. But hey, no problemo. We've been so lucky, living in Melbourne, to have such a huge range of events and festivals at our doorstep. Sure, we don't always go... but it's nice to know we could if we were so inclined. Melbourne's geek-themed conventions and expos are plentiful with Supernova in April, Continuum X in June, Oz Comicon in July and Armageddon in October. Some are bigger than others and some are better but, whichever you go to, there are common issues if you're trying to make it a family affair.

After some great and not-so-great experiences, here are my top 10 tips for surviving a convention with a child along for the ride. Most of them are just plain old survival tips for first-time adults as well (give or take the extra nappies).

1. Do your research and plan ahead. This starts with picking the right convention for you and your kids. Will your favourite actor/writer/artist be attending? Are there family friendly events? Have a look at the online guestlists and programs and see which convention's going to offer you the most bang for your buck or the best quality experience. While you're at it, check venues for pram access, parenting rooms or child-friendly facilities. Once you've bought your tickets, you can start planning everything from transport to purchases to exit strategies. It also gives you an opportunity to prep older kids beforehand so they know what they'll be seeing and can get as excited as you. They might even want to make costumes. Essentially, introducing them to your favourite characters, artists, actors or writers means getting to relive all that same joy you experienced the first time round.

2. Be selective. Sit down with the program, pick your No 1 must-see event/signing/panel and then organise your day(s) around that one thing. At one Con, my only goal was a Patrick Stewart sighting. I knew once that was ticked off, I would be happy to go with the flow. So I highlighted all the Patrick Stewart events for the day, picked my "dream" session (with a few others as back-up) and then scheduled transport and arrival times, queuing times, etc to suit that one event. A jam-packed schedule isn't feasible when you have a child (young or old) in tow, but a little scheduling with lots of flexibility will work.

3. Be prepared for queues. Just surrender to the idea that there will be queues. Even if you purchase the premium tickets, you're likely to hit queues in the VIP areas as well (albeit slightly shorter ones). Showing up early might get you closer to the front of the queue but there'll still be a wait for every event. Organisers are generally super strict about times and will not allow entry before the official time.

The longest queues are usually for initial entry to the venue and ticket pick-up or registration so take advantage of any early or online check-ins. If they have a registration time the night before and you can drop in sans child, even better. One less queue for them tomorrow. Having said this, the queues are often where the magic happens and you can freely gawk at people in costume. There's also a sense of camraderie you can develop with those around you after a few hours stalled in line. Just don't cut-in. That's when things get nasty.

A corollory of this is to be prepared for all kinds of queues. Some will be indoors and some outdoors. Some will be squishy and some spacious. Some will be fast-moving and others glacial. With kids in tow this means having stuff on hand or strategies to deal with the waiting time. Which leads us to...

4. Just be prepared. Full stop. Pack light but pack smart. Here's our list of must-haves for us and our toddler:
  • Comfy shoes. Der.
  • Comfy bag. I take a padded laptop backpack. It fits everything we need and keeps things safe when there's bumping and jostling.
  • Wet wipes. Lots and lots of wet wipes. They do double-duty as hand sanitiser, public toilet/change table sanitiser, etc.
  • Nappies. Always two more than I think I'll need.
  • Extra set of clothes (and an extra t-shirt/top for me)
  • Sunscreen, hats, rain gear (depending on the weather)
  • Individually portioned snacks and water bottles. Food of all varieties is super expensive and generally crappy. To avoid having to queue or leave the venue for meals, I bring enough for grazing through the whole day. This includes toddler-friendly trail mix, fuit and veggie sticks (for early in the day), crackers and crispbreads, long-life cheese sticks, small boxes of sultanas, etc. Small things that can be eaten one-by-one are an entertainment in and of themselves. I also carry a small tetra-pak of long-life milk just in case we get stuck somewhere close to bed time.
  • Bandaids and tea-tree oil. (Combined with the wet wipes, this is our little first-aid kit. Anything more serious than a small cut or a graze can be dealt with at the first-aid tent). 
  • A sickbag (we use Chuckies travel sickness bags). Gross, I know - but vomiting children are bad enough without worrying about cleaning up said vomit as well. In a Con atmosphere, children can spew from nerves, over-excitement, smelling something gross (deodorant, people, please!) or from eating too much junk.
  • Well-charged phone; camera with spare batteries and a blank SD card. It's always a toss-up whether to bring a camera or rely solely on phone pics. It really depends on the quality you're after and the quality of your gear. 
  • Toddler apps or videos. We have episodes of Peppa Pig and Thomas the Tank Engine handy. Even with the sound down, they're great distraction material.
  • A charger (if it's small). Toddler apps can seriously drain battery life and sometimes you're lucky enough to be camped out next to an electrical outlet. 
  • Muslin cloth (about 1x1metre). Great for a playmat or covering a cold/sleepy/over-stimulated kid. Plus costume possibilities in a pinch.
  • Pen and notebook. For notes, signatures or colouring in.
  • Two or three small, wheeled toys for zooming around the floor.
  • A dummy with strap. We only use a dummy for sleeping, but always pack one just in case.
  • Earplugs or kid sized-headphones. If you're planning on attending anything that teenage girls love, they scream. Really loudly.
  • Walking around money. Literally. I tend to bury my wallet in the bottom of the bag, which keeps it safe from sticky fingers and overspending. Instead, I keep change and small denominations in a change purse or in a readily accessible pocket. 

5. Bring extra adults. Even if you're just taking one child, having an extra set of hands is a must. With two or more adults, you can take turns kid-wrangling, holding your place in a queue, dashing for the parents room, etc. It really takes the pressure off.

6. Think carefully about how your kids are going to get around. There are lots and lots of people everywhere you go and the potential for losing a child is great. If they're older, work out strategies for keeping them close-by or an 'I'm lost' plan (complete with a clear meeting point, phone number written on arm or dog tags, etc). If they're older but still small, consider a restraint of some kind - you don't have to call it a leash, but that's the idea. One of those animal backpacks with a "tail" you can hold on to might make you feel a bit better.

If they are small, you may want to get them off the ground anyway and into a pram or carrier of some kind. Each has their advantages and disadvantages. Both will get your child off the ground, potentially let them sleep while you keep plowing through or could be incorporated into a costume if you're into the cosplay. A pram gives you extra carrying capacity if you're buying up swag but they're not great when you're manueuvering through a crowd. A carrier will let you be a bit more mobile, but you're essentially a pack mule and will have the extra weight when you're spending so much time on your feet. After one round with the pram, we went with the Baby Bjorn and had Dear Boy forward facing so he could get his fill of all the sights and sounds. Now he's bigger, we're seriously considering a hiking backpack.

7. Don't buy all of the things. Because of the afore-mentioned pack mule status, don't buy everything you want there and then. Instead, grab a stallholder's businesscard and see if you can make a deal on an online order or for it to be delivered.

8. Hazard awareness. Cosplay is awesome but somewhat dangerous. Wings, swords, ears and tails, fangs, teeth: your kid will want to grab a hold of all the pointy-pointy things. Sometimes they're hard to avoid when you're all jammed in together. It's a safe bet one of you will get whacked in the face by someone's headgear.

9. Artist galleries are a great quiet zone. If you or your child need a break, head towards the artist galleries. They're usually quieter than the other areas and can give you a bit more space to rock a child to sleep or just decompress for a while. Just be sure to browse a few steps ahead of older children so you can detour around nudey-pics or slaughter scenes.

10. Be excellent to each other. Whenever lots of people are jammed together, tempers can fray and noses can be assaulted. Add in mama-bear instincts and the normal sleep deprivation/toddler-wrangling frustrations and things can get nasty pretty quickly. Just grin and bear it. No stabbing people in the eye with a pen.

You should also be polite when taking photos. Most cosplayers are there to be noticed and are generally happy to be photographed and have their costumes admired. They'll even work the queues and stop and pose with you, but you should still be respectful of their space and person. Don't touch or pose inappropriately unless you've asked first and don't expect everyone to want to pose with your kid. Also, don't get pictures of your kids with people in inappropriate costumes. You don't want DOCS to come knocking at your door if you post photos of your toddler with (toy) guns to their head or being strangled by a hideous monster. The one with the Leia slave-girl is probably also going to get comments for all the wrong reasons.

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