Monday, June 1, 2015

I Went to Awesome Con with My Kids

Last weekend, I went to Awesome Con in downtown DC.  It's a huge geek culture conference and festival of fandoms, like the huge upcoming Comic Con in San Diego next month or Dragon Con in Atlanta in September. I went for two days and I brought a total of four kids with me both times. On Saturday, it was me and three kids ages 10-13.

This was my first all-in con experience, though my son and I spent a couple of hours wandering around Metro Con in Tampa last June. After doing that & having a blast, I wondered if going to a con (especially on my own) with kids was doable. Here's everything I learned, starting with what to do before you get there:

Prepare your kids for what they might see. We saw some stuff. Some of it was great - in fact most of it was better than great and we're all still buzzing about it. But you should know that some of it was a little "Hey, that's an entire bare bottom right there, covered by a teeny loincloth, four inches from my small child's face as we wait in line to buy Lego Marvel mini-figs." There was some cleavage on display. There were also some scary-looking cosplayers (think really well done Heath Ledger-style Jokers from Batman, etc). We talked about what to do if they saw something or someone who freaked them out, but nothing phased them.

There's also some gender reversal cosplay, dudes dressed as Black Widow or women dressed as the 10th doctor or Thor. If that kind of thing bothers you or you don't want your kids to see it, then honestly, you should probably just stay home. I was blown away by how inclusive, diverse, friendly, and respectful the vibe was. And to be specific, the number of times I saw cosplayers in stuff I felt was inappropriate for people to wear in public was exactly twice. And there were an estimated 30,000 people there over three days.

Are you kidding me?! Also, the kid who made this amazing thing was incredibly nice and helped us find parking.
To cosplay or not to cosplay? We decided to wear stuff from our preferred fandoms, but not to go all out. Since we're all relative newbies, we wanted to be able to see and do everything and not worry about elaborate gear. My oldest daughter has a killer Weeping Angel costume from last Halloween that she made herself. Not to brag, but it was really good and if she'd worn it, she could have garnered a ton of attention and had a blast with it. But she would have been uncomfortable the whole time, itchy, hot, and sporting wings four feet across.

More on family cosplay at Awesome Con later this week.

Pack snacks and drinks, as much as you can comfortably carry. In my experience traveling, hiking, and theme-parking with kids, you must be vigilant in the avoidance of anyone becoming hangry. That means some form of nourishment every two hours. If you are reliant on the vendors, you'll spend all of the money on convention food or vending machines and way too much time standing in line.

Have a plan if you get separated or lost. This is just parenting and I'm sure you already do this, but it bears mentioning anyway. We picked a meet up spot as soon as we got there, had a plan on what to do if we were separated, and identified the people they could ask for help (staff, uniformed volunteers, security guards, cast members of Buffy or Doctor Who.  [Ed. note: Will you adopt me? - Guru.] Make sure all the kids with you either know your cell phone number or have it on them, just in case. A good tip is to write it on a label, and stick the label on the inside hem of their shirts.

Be clear with expectations up front. I told the kids I brought with me exactly how I expected them to behave. My rules were (1) no wandering off* (2) no whining (3) understand that this is not a kid event - it's for all people who love awesome stuff and (4) I can't buy you everything you want at the vendor's booths, so pick what you want within your given budget and that is that.

*This rule is hilarious because kids who are into fandoms, video games, comics, etc are exactly and precisely the kinds of kids who will walk away from you to look at Totoro fan art and then get so distracted by Magic the Gathering and Gollum t-shirts that you can literally and frantically shout their names in their ears and they won't hear you.

This Gollum shirt rules.
There's a lot of walking and waiting in lines. Everyone should wear comfortable shoes. Smaller kids will need a stroller or a carrier because it would have been WAY TOO MUCH for my littles to manage all day. If my 6 year old had come with me, I would have been carrying her by the end of the day.

Give yourself a spending limit. Then double it because everything costs more than you think. Lunch from the vendors on site was pretty decent but close to $50 for me and three kids. You may think, I'll just pack sandwiches or I'll just step outside of the convention center and walk to a cheapo restaurant but honestly - that didn't work for us. It was like 10-15 minutes just to get out of the convention center and another few to find a restaurant.

Bring cash. Some vendors take plastic but many don't. You'll miss out on a lot of cool stuff without cash. Would you like an example? While walking past the autograph booths/lines for the cast members of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I saw a sign that said: Autograph $40, Selfie $20.

That's when I peed squealed a little because a professional photo op with Spike (James Marsters) was about twice that. For $20, I could get a selfie with Spike where he would put his arm around my shoulders and make a bitey face. Could you imagine having that opportunity right in front of you and not being able to take advantage of it because you just assumed your debit card would work?

Tell me honestly, would it be weird to make this the Christmas card?
Autographs and photo ops, etc. with celeb guests are interesting. Many of these celebrities sit at a booth with a handler/assistant type person for hours and hours each day and interact with their fans. Some celebs have long lines, some have short lines. Some will charge you for a selfie, an autograph, or even for leaving your outgoing voicemail message (!!). There are also professional photo ops. These tend to be more expensive and they are extremely quick and impersonal. But you get a great professional photo and for the big name celebrities (who probably won't take a selfie with you for $20) it's your only chance to get a photo with them.

I much preferred the booth/autograph interactions to the professional photo ops. Some celebs have long lines who move quickly, some have lines that move slowly. I sat down and watched a line get really long at James Marsters' booth on Saturday because he was taking the time to talk with every single fan who who showed up to meet him. He was genuinely nice and friendly and gave everyone his total attention. Same with John Rhys-Davies (Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones). Amber Benson, who played Tara on Buffy, actually took a couple minutes to hang out with me and the kids, which was incredibly kind of her.

More about meeting members of the Buffy cast another time because, really, that could be a whole post.

A quick word on freaking Alex Kingston, man. I don't think she's a human. I think she really is part Time Lord. She is so lovely and she was at it for hours and hours interacting with fans, signing autographs, taking photos. I watched her booth and the long line for a while and every single person who walked away from her table was BEAMING and walking about six inches off the ground. If you wondered if River Song was magical in real life, the answer is a resounding oh hell yes.

The panels and Q&A's were great. We only went to a couple but they were all really good. It was so cool to hear Arthur Darvill speak about playing Rory and say things like "I've written a really good episode of Doctor Who in my mind where all the companions are together in therapy." I was like: I WOULD TOTALLY WATCH THAT. Also, did you know his dad is a musician and was in The Fine Young Cannibals? Holy crap, right?

We hit up one Q&A that was kind of random (for us, anyway) with Bryan Johnson of Comic Book Men. He had his 9 year niece with him and the two of them were AWESOME and honest and funny and great. Sure, they were talking about a show I've never seen but I'm now planning to binge watch every episode. The lesson here may be that it's worth it to hit up some panels/Q&A's of topics that are off your radar and find some new cool stuff to get into. Also, sitting is good when you're doing a lot of walking.

A note for parents of small kids - there will be bad language in these panels/discussions. Sometimes a just a little, sometimes a lot.

The vendors and the stuff to buy will blow your mind. It was really hard for me not to spend all my money. I ended up trying to buy from artists and people with small businesses making really cool and unique stuff. Oh my goodness, the art prints and original work is amazing. The stuff you always wish you could find but is never in stores - it's there. We spent probably 6 hours total just exploring the vendor's and exhibitors and ooh'ing and ahhh'ing over everything. The kids I brought with me were 4th grade to 7th grade, and they could have spent the whole time just doing that. I think younger kids (certainly my younger kid) would have gotten quickly bored with looking at handmade Slytherin skirts and artistic interpretations of Magneto at the concentration camp in acrylic paint on wood.

Things I would differently or better:

I would have done more on day one. Awesome Con ran from Friday to Sunday. I would have done so much more celebrity stuff on Friday as well as buying a lot of the stuff we saw. On Friday, the crowds were smaller, the lines were shorter, and there was more stuff and better quality art available and a lot of it was gone by Saturday afternoon.
Some of the artists will custom make things for you if you ask them. I should have done that. Fine artists and the folks who make jewelry or shirts or even buttons will sometimes make something for you on site (if you ask early on during the conference) or will do it and have it shipped to you. How amazing is that?
I would have insisted that my kids only buy that stuff that you can only get there. They ended up buying some things that were cool, but sort of generic. There's too much special, unique things there and our budget was too limited to waste money on stuff you can buy at Hot Topic.
I would have made people watching more of a priority. My kids were happy to meet and chat with cosplayers, get their pictures taken with them, and just sit and watch the parade and pageantry that is a con. We spent too much running around and waiting in lines and hurrying to get to the next thing.
I would have made sure every kid had their own camera (or device that shoots pictures). They would have been so happy to take a million pictures of the stuff that they found the most interesting. And they would have stopped asking for my damn phone.
I would have done a better job using my press pass to actually talk to the celebrities that I got to meet but I was so excited and flustered that I literally just grinned and babbled like an idiot. Next time, I'll be cooler.
I would have brought a phone charger. Which is just me being dumb because everyone knows to do that.
I would have done a better job pacing myself. We did too much walking (it might have been two 20,000 step days in a row if I'd had my Fitbit on) and a lot of it was done in ballet flats on concrete floors. My legs were killing me. My kids were starting to get tired and a little cranky. By about 6:00pm, it was visibly obvious that a lot of the younger kids present were feeling the same way. We wore ourselves out to the point that going back Sunday was kind of a non-starter.

That's one of the big take-aways for me from this experience. It's really hard to balance the desire to try to do and see everything with the needs of your kids, who may really need to just CHILL for half an hour and eat some goldfish at the exact same time you want to do a photo op or a watch panel discussion. Their needs come first, and the younger they are, the more true that is. I missed some stuff I wanted to do, but it was so worth it to get to share this experience with them.

The second big take-away may sound kind of cheesy but here goes anyway. Not only did I find the vibe at Awesome Con to be kid-friendly, I thought it was just plain friendly. The vibe was overwhelmingly accepting, respectful, inclusive, and cordial to everyone. People treated my kids just like anyone else - like fans who love the same stuff that they do. There were people of every size, age, race, ethnicity, gender, everything and they were all so happy to be there, among their own kind. Rarely have I been among a more diverse crowd. Thirty thousand people who may not fit in everywhere, but were a big happy tribe for three days celebrating the great stuff we all love. My kids and I felt part of that tribe and it was by far the most awesome part of Awesome Con.

Disclosure: Awesome Con provided me with a free press pass to the event and provided 2 free one day passes for the older kids I brought on Saturday. Kids 10 and under are free. The Press Pass did not provide me with any special access to any events or celebrities. Everything in this post is my own opinion because no one is the boss of me.

(c) Mommyland Blogs 2013-2014

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  1. I love your face in the picture with James Marsters. I totally would have had that same "holy crap I'm really taking a selfie with Spike" look if I was in that pic too!!!

  2. In that photo with River and Rory, you aren't just squealing on the inside. Your entire face is like SQUEEEEEE! You held it together better than I would have... I would have been ugly crying.

  3. We are moving to the VA / DC area this summer and I cannot wait to attend one of these types of events with my family. Thank you for all of the advice.

  4. We were there all 3 days! We had a blast. This was a huge improvement over last year by FAR.

    And yes, Alex is perfection itself.

  5. a post about Buffy? yes please!! I can't believe you got to meet Spike!! Dying of jealousy right now!!!

  6. So we need to cosplay as characters with comfy shoes and comfy clothing that also includes the maximum amount of storage compartments for snacks?

  7. Stephanie LeasureJune 1, 2015 at 11:50 AM

    Thank you for this! I was an annual attendee of Dragon*Con until I had my first child (literally the day before I would have left had I gone that year). It gives me hope that someday I'll be able to go to conventions again, though perhaps in a different way that before.

  8. So jealous! I was almost able to attend for free through work but it fell through. Unfortunately, the cost/day when we would have to go home half-way through for naptime wasn't going to work. We might go up to Baltimore Comic-Con though, especially if we can assemble our Groot, Rocket Raccoon and Gamora family cosplay with our toddler as Rocket!

  9. Yeah, I'm late to the party (catching up on my feed), but welcome to con life! My husband and I have been going to Dragon Con for well over a decade, and while we don't bring our son (now 7) with us, we do take him to some smaller local cons and always have a good time. I hope you'll continue to share this wonderful experience with your awesome nerdlings in the future.

  10. You should really, REALLY start watching Arrow...

    1. We just finished season 1 on Netflix. LOVE LOVE LOVE.

  11. This is a great post! I can't wait for my boys to be older so we can go to the Comicon in San Diego.

  12. Looks like you had a lot of fun. Wish I could have been there.




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