Sean Riley is what you'd call a die-hard fan of Phoenix Comicon. An avowed geek, the 34-year-old Glendale resident has not only been attending the event annually since 2011, he buys his tickets well in advance, keeps abreast of the latest news about its special guests, and considers it one of the highlights of his entire year.
“Normally, when I go to Phoenix Comicon, I tend to go full out,” Riley says. “I've got all these panels booked, and there's all these things that I want to do and see and I end up rushing around and trying to do everything. It's a blast.”
When he started bringing his kids along, however, it became an altogether different experience. Last year, Riley introduced his 5-year-old daughter, Jessica, to Phoenix Comicon — and it sort of changed everything, including upending his plans.
“When I brought Jessica last year, I basically took whatever I was hoping to do that day and just wiped the board clean and planned everything around things that would intrigue her that would also intrigue me,” Riley says.
That meant ditching out on panels focusing on Doctor Who, Firefly, and other beloved fandoms in favor of Disney-related programming. He doesn't regret bringing his daughter to Comicon in the slightest, despite any of the complications involved, since it resulted in happy memories of seeing her interacting with cosplayers for the first time.
“I've seen cosplay for many years, but seeing them with a kid was a whole new experience,” Riley says. “We were sitting in a panel and this fantastic cosplayer dressed as Elsa from Frozen walked by and Jess was begging me for a picture with her. And to see my daughter's [reaction] when she saw all of the Disney princesses was amazing.”
So positive were their adventures that Riley brought Jessica's half-brother Nicholas along when they visited Phoenix Comicon's spin-off event, Fan Fest, last December, which proved to be just as fun, if not a little more.
“I get to watch these kids and see the looks on their face when they see these characters they love come to life in front of them,” Riley says. “It's something I'll do every year.”
Riley isn't the only parent who's had a blast with their brood at Phoenix Comicon, as thousands of mothers and father attend each year with their children (who are dubbed “sidekicks” by event organizers) in tow. It's one of those bonding experiences that helps to strengthen family ties and ultimately mold children's personalities by sharing a mutual love for all things nerdy. Authors Stephen H. Segal and Valya Dudycz Lupescu touch upon this in their recently released book, Geek Parenting. “Everything we share helps shape who they are and becomes a part of our family’s common culture. The movies we watch, the books we read the expressions we use ... kids soak it all up, reflect it back, and it’s all woven into our collective memories and stories.”
New Times heard plenty of memories and stories from many Comicon regulars who gushed about getting the chance to geek out together with their progeny at the annual four-day event at the Phoenix Convention Center, which takes place this year from Thursday, June 2, to Sunday, June 5. Local hip-hop artist Vocab Malone, for example, often goes with his wife, Nicole Rieser, and their four kids in tow and, like Riley, considers it a major occasion each year.
“It's just this crazy week. We just take the time off work and turn it into a staycation,” Malone says. “For us, that's the funnest way to do it.”
It can be a complicated and taxing experience, since children oftentimes can be a handful.
“Kids create lots of problems,” Malone says. “Costumes can fall apart, they want to do everything all at once, they get tired, they have to eat, they have to pee ... it's a lot to handle in the middle of something as big as Comicon.”
Attending the event with kids is definitely a juggling act, but one that can be pulled off. Many of the parents we spoke with were happy to impart advice on how to navigate the situation and survive Phoenix Comicon — and have fun time while doing so.
Consider attending during off-hours or on off-days
Phoenix Comicon is a constant hive of activity on each of the days it takes place. And its two busiest periods, without question, are Friday afternoon and pretty much all day Saturday, when some of the biggest events and crowds of the weekend occur. It might be a bit overwhelming for both kids and parents alike, which is why Malone recommends attending either on off-days like Thursday’s “preview night” or on Sundays when turnout is considerably lower. Ditto for off-peak times like the first few hours after Comicon begins each day.
“Saturdays are no joke, ” he says. “But Thursday and earlier on Fridays are way more manageable. It's better when there are less crowds to deal with since kids are kids and they’ll create havoc and it's easier to deal with them, especially when they're dressed up, when you're not in a crowd.”
If you are there on Saturday, however, Malone suggests avoiding the Exhibitor's Hall altogether and instead hitting up some of the kid-oriented or family-friendly programming. "You'll have enough fun doing just that since there's so much of it happening," he says.
Plan ahead as much as possible
Just like the Rebel Alliance did before it took out the Death Star at the Battle of Yavin, it’s helpful to have battle plan in place before heading for the convention center. Thousands of activities and events happen over the course of four days and Riley says it behooves parents to sit down beforehand to figure of what they’d like to experience with their kids. “It's good to look through the [Phoenix] Comicon guide and Conquest app and get an idea of where you want to go,” he says. “It's a little intimidating at first, but once you get into the flow and you become familiar with the youth activities and the schedules, it’s amazing.”
Lesa Bornost of Tempe, who has brought her daughter Emma to Comicon the last two years, says it’s also fun involving your kids in the process. “It helps to make them part of the picking and choosing what you're doing,” she says. “My daughter is old enough that she can sit down with my husband and I and look at some of the panels and activities. She even made up her own agenda of what she wanted to do.”
... But be flexible ...
With all that said, you'll want to be as flexible as possible, since even the best-laid plans might go awry due to various delays or complications. The authors of Geek Parenting touch upon this in their book, noting that one has to be quick on their feet and ultimately adaptable to any circumstance when life injects itself. “The hitch is when we mistake intention for control — when we forget that the map we‘re drawing for ourselves isn’t a program that the whole universe must follow,” they write. “And when kids are involved, anything [imaginable] can upend your blueprint.”
The solution isn’t to scrap your plans, however, but rather to improvise something new. When it comes to attending Comicon, that means not setting your schedule in stone. Or as Riley recommends, "plan everything in pencil," as things could change on a dime due to the often hectic and crowded nature of the event. "Things are not always going to go right, or you're not going to see everything you'd like,” he says. The upshot of which is that there’s always something interesting happening at the event that you can slide into at the last minute.
... And be prepared for boredom
While Comicon is typically wall-to-wall fun for kids, they aren't necessarily going to stay entertained every single second. In fact, they could very easily become bored at moment's notice, even in the middle of a high-profile guest's Q&A session that you're dying to attend. Amanda Perry of Tempe says it's something she and her husband, Jack, take into consideration when attending with their toddler daughter each year. “It can be hard to sit through some of the longer panels with a toddler,” she says. “You have to be cognizant of the other other congoers, and you can't have a 2-year-old running around or talking the whole time. We're looking forward to seeing Alex Kingston this year, but I don't know if we're going to be able to make it through a whole hour in that room.”
Perry suggests having distactions within easy reach to help keep kids occupied, such as toys, games, or a tablet during events and panels they aren't into. You also may need to clear out in case they really become fussy, which hasn't necessarily been a bad thing. “We've found it interesting bopping over to the next room or area and see what's going on there,” she says. “We'd sit and watch a panel for 20 minutes, and after she gets antsy, we'd go, 'Okay, what's next?' and find another panel. There's always two or three interesting happening at the same time.”
You also might consider trading off responsibilities with your significant other, where one parent rolls solo around the 'con for a period of time while the other takes care of the kids.
Take advantage of kid-friendly programming and areas
According to the Phoenix Comicon website, more than 100 different events, activities, workshops, and panels aimed at children will take place during its four-day run. And, in all likelihood, many of 'em will appeal to your kids, whether it's a robot-building tutorial, lightsaber training, art contests, cosplay fashion shows, My Little Pony discussions, Avengers obstacle course, or a chance to hang out with pirates or mermaids. There are also rooms throughout the convention center offering arts and crafts, tables filled with Legos, or just a place to chill out for a bit. Malone says that all of the aforementioned activities and area offer endless fun for kids. He cites panels featuring local superhero cosplay groups, like Q&As with the Justice League of Arizona. “They tailor those panels to kids and stay in character,” he says. “And kids always ask the funniest questions.”
More importantly, many children's activities can serve as a much-needed pit stop. “The advantage of going to these things is that your kids get a rest from all that walking and they're entertained and engaged,” Malone says. It's also a chance to get away from the enormous throngs of people, Bornost adds, which can sometimes be a bit overwhelming. “It's pretty intimidating walking into some of those big crowds, which is why it's really nice in the youth areas,” she says. “We've spent a lot of time in the Lego room [where] my daughter was able to decompress and stay busy.”
Be mindful of the heat and hydrate often
As anyone who’s lived in the Valley longer than five minutes can attest, it gets quite toasty outside this time of year, which can often be uncomfortable for Comicon attendees. That goes double for kids, as children are more susceptible to heat-related maladies like dehydration, especially when coupled with all the physical activity that’s inherent to the event. As such, you’ll want to not only keep cool and avoid the high temperatures as much as possible, but also make sure everyone’s drinking plenty of water.
Even if your brood is spending most of its time indoors, it’s likely you’ll be doing a lot of extra walking around the convention center and will need some extra H2O now and again. And while it’s easy to forget that fact in all the hustle and bustle of Comicon, Perry says it's important to stay hydrated. “It's Arizona, and people don't think about it because you’re indoors, but you want to make sure you have water and are drinking more,” she says.
Come prepared and don't forget the snacks
Backpacks and bags are a requisite for many parents at Phoenix Comicon, and not just for toting around all their schwag. You're probably going to bringing a survival pack of sorts along with you containing any number of necessities that are sure to come in handy, like sunblock, for example, as well as sunglasses, diapers, wet wipes, hats, handheld gaming systems, or an extra outfit in case they grow weary of costuming. “Make sure to bring everything you need unless you want to walk all the way back to the car,” Malone says.
That includes a certain amount of snacks and drinks for whenever your kids get hungry or thirsty. According to the Comicon website, outside food and beverages can be brought into the event “for personal use,” which Bornost wholeheartedly recommends. “Bringing snacks or packing a lunch is a good idea,” she says. “It's more cost-effective and you don't have to wait in line.”
Set limits on buying toys, merch, or other treasures
Comicon’s gigantic 312,000 square-foot Exhibitor Hall is like the geek-oriented Cave of Wonders from Aladdin thanks to its wealth of toys, games, apparel, merchandise, prints, ‘con exclusives, and other treasures. And it's all guaranteed to grab the attention of geeks of all ages, especially the younger ones. “You walk through the hall and you've got toys everywhere,” Riley says. “And these are all expensive toys we’re talking about.” Kids are not only going to get their hands on these delights but will understandably want to take as many home as possible.
You’ll definitely want to keep your head on a swivel when walking around the hall to ensure little hands aren’t potentially manhandling any merch. It’s also an opportunity to set limits and teach kids how to spend wisely, Riley says. In fact, he gave his kids an allowance and imparted some words of wisdom. “At Fan Fest, we told [our] kids, ‘Look, you have this amount of dollars to spend, so don’t buy the first thing you see. Whatever you want we’ll get at the end of the day.’ That way, they don’t have buyer’s remorse after going to the next booth and seeing something even better.”
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Incorporate cosplay as much as possible
It goes without saying that dressing up in costume is a major part of Phoenix Comicon, whether you're scoping out cosplayers or putting on a disguise yourself. Both are a particularly joy for kids, whether they're posing for photos with their favorite superhero, donning cape and cowl themselves, or participating in a group cosplay with their family. “In my opinion, that's half the fun of Comicon,” Malone says. “Kids always like to dress up, and you can either let them do their own thing or go as a group. I like the idea of going all out, so to me, the full experience when parents are cosplaying, too. Even something minor is fun, and it's really fun when your family is one theme.”
That said, don't worry too much about creating 100-percent accurate or tricked costumes like professional cosplayers, he says. After all, the emphasis should be on fun. In fact, he's a big advocate of keeping things simple. “We have a closet full of stuff and we will grab something and put something together at the last minute” Malone says. “You don't have to look like a pro. You could do a lot with just pajamas, like a kid with Hulk pajamas, a little Hulk mask, and those Hulk gloves with giant fists wins the day.” Make sure, however, that whatever costume your children are wearing isn't too burdensome. “First of all, they need to be able to be mobile in it,” he says. “And they need to be able to use the restroom easily.” (Even The Hulk needs to take a potty break every so often.)
Be prepared to take a lot of photos
Malone has one important piece of advice for any parent attending Phoenix Comicon – make sure there’s plenty of space on your smartphone. After all, there will be no shortage of photo ops and memorable moments at the event. “You’d better clear out the memory of your phone,” he says. “Your kids are going to want to pictures with all the characters they meet and you’re going to want to remember all of the fun you’re going to have.” Of course, you could also bring a camera along just in case.
Phoenix Comicon 2016 takes place from Thursday, June 2, to Sunday, June 5, at the Phoenix Convention Center and nearby hotels. Daily admission is $15 to $40 and a four-day pass is $70.