The Evolution of Lines and Crowds at SDCC

by Transmute Jun

In the decade that I have been attending San Diego Comic Con (SDCC) I have seen a lot of changes, with each year having its own new issues and adjustments. In 2018, the  biggest changes at SDCC related to the lines and crowds.

It has been clear for some years that Comic Con International (CCI) is unhappy with the long lines, particularly those that go overnight. There have been some unsuccessful attempts to reduce or eliminate those lines (most notably the introduction of wristbands for the Hall H line) over the past few years. However, this year there was a concerted effort on CCI’s part to shorten lines, through a number of different means. While there were some hitches, there was definitely a notable reduction in lines around the con itself.

3 different Hall H wristband styles in as many days.

Hall H has had long lines for years. In 2018, with 2 notable ‘anchor panels’ (Marvel films and Game of Thrones) not present, there was less to draw attendees to the Hall. The most popular panels in Hall H were spread out, rather than appearing all on one day, with Doctor Who and Breaking Bad on Thursday, Walking Dead and Star Trek: Discovery on Friday, Warner Brothers movies and Deadpool 2 on Saturday, and Supernatural and Legion on Sunday. This meant that there was no single day that generated all of the attendee interest, and as a result, while every day had overnight lines, they were significantly less than in recent years. On each day, CCI was still handing out wristbands at 7:30 am that morning, and sometimes did not even break into the D wristbands group at all. It was possible on all 4 days of SDCC to sleep in a bed the night before and line up at Hall H the morning you wanted to attend and get inside. If high interest panels come back to SDCC in 2019, this may change, but for this year, it was refreshing for attendees to know that if they wanted to enter Hall H, they did not have to invest time in overnight lines.

There were other, unannounced, changes at Hall H this year as well. Unlike in previous years, in 2018 the style of wristbands changed every day. On Thursday and Sunday, the wristbands were constructed of a papery material, with a small hologram. On Friday, they were plastic bands with hologram-like designs. On Saturday, they were cloth-like wristbands. This was an attempt to combat the issue with fake wristbands that caused many wristbanded attendees to be shut out of Hall H Saturday in 2017, and attendees were very happy with this development.

Entering the Hall H chutes on Thursday of SDCC 2018

Another change in Hall H was applying the use of RFID scanners in conjunction with bathroom passes. For years, CCI has handed out bathroom passes to Hall H attendees, allowing them to go elsewhere for food and bathrooms, and then return to the Hall. This practice led to a lot of ‘bathroom pass sharing’, which meant that fewer people lined up outside of Hall H got inside as the day progressed. Tying the bathroom passes to badges effectively combated that practice, and generally attendees were happy with this change.

Metal detectors and bag searches on the Hall H lawn.

The most unpleasant and unsuccessful change was the unannounced implementation of metal detectors and bag checks going into the Hall H chutes. This was instituted without warning on Thursday morning as Hall H opened for the con, and it slowed down access considerably, to the point where by Friday morning, CCI had discontinued the practice altogether. Most attendees were unhappy with the significant delays, and did not understand the need for these ‘security’ measures, given that there are no such scans or checks to enter the other parts of the convention center or the Exhibit Floor. Unfortunately, the memo did not reach the people at the Hall H or Ballroom 20 bathroom pass return lines, and attendees were scanned and bag-checked going back into these venues, even though they weren’t scanned or bag-checked going in the first time. The lines to return after obtaining a bathroom pass were long enough that many attendees missed significant portions of panels that they wished to see.

Another venue known for its long lines is the Everything Else line to get into the Sails Pavilion in the mornings. These were significantly reduced from previous years because of the implementation of online lotteries for the big studio and Comic autographing sessions, as well as for the most popular exclusives retailers. The drawings that were held at the Sails in the morning were for other (less in demand) limited signings, and for panels at the Horton Grand Theatre. While those lines snaked outside of the convention center, security was tight, and no one was able to sneak in the back way. This was a big improvement from previous years where line-cutters entered the rear of the Convention Center/Sails from the waterfront side of the building.

Sails Pavilion

Lines on the Exhibit Floor were also reduced this year. Many exhibitors stated that CCI and the convention center management had come down hard on them, pushing to have each booth reduce lines that bled into the walkways. This was assisted by the online lotteries for the biggest exclusives booths (Funko, Hasbro, Lego, UCC). Other booths were more aggressive about chasing away attendees when lines were capped. The Vikings booth had attendees fill out a form to enter a virtual line, where they could walk away and then be texted when it was their turn to enter the booth. The Star Wars booth gave out tickets with return times to experience their replica cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. Booths that ignored the strictures faced consequences. Funimation was shut down by the Fire Marshall for excessive lines, and reopened the following morning with a lottery to enter the booth.

While lines were improved in many areas, there were also negative consequences. Line culture is built into SDCC attendees, and when they didn’t have to (or weren’t allowed to) line up for some things, instead they lined up for others. Rooms such as the Indigo Ballroom, 6A and 6BCF had much longer lines this year. The lines at offsites were also much longer than in previous years. Hopefully, as line reduction measures become part of the SDCC culture in the coming years, attendees will start to value their time and sleep a little more, making life easier on everyone.

Crowds were also more spread out this year. It seemed that there were just as many people in the Gaslamp and at the offsites as there were in the convention center and on the Exhibit Floor. However, crowd flow was much improved by the closure of Harbor Blvd. to most vehicular traffic. Generally, attendees appreciated the additional space, as well as the ability to more easily cross the street at Fifth Ave. However, this change may not be permanent, pending community discussions over the next few months. While the Convention Center management and CCI (and attendees) support the road closure, it remains to be seen how San Diego residents felt about the added inconvenience to them and to their daily lives. There was also one group of attendees who were significantly inconvenienced by the closure: those who had pre-purchased parking at the Hilton Bayfront garage, many of whom were  forced to circle the downtown area to approach the garage from the other direction. This is another issue that will have to be resolved if the Harbor Blvd. closures become a regular occurrence at SDCC.

It remains to be seen how these new procedures will be integrated into future cons, but with the notable exception of the metal detectors and bag checks, attendees are generally optimistic and appreciated the adjustments this year.

What did you think of line policies and crowd flow at SDCC 2018? Join the conversation on the FoCC forum!


Transmute Jun

Transmute Jun has an addiction to pop culture conventions, and attends as many as she can each year. When she's not traveling, she likes to stay at home reading a good book, playing a video game, or binge-watching a TV show. She can be bribed with pizza, Coke Zero and Belgian milk chocolate.