The biggest topic of discussion leading up to WonderCon has been the location. Most WonderCon goers have been very disappointed by the move to Anaheim, CA, over San Francisco. There’s ongoing chatter about whether it will move back to San Francisco in 2014, but no clear news on that possibility yet. If location alone is going to be a deal-breaker, there’s not much getting around that, but the convention itself, running in Anaheim, deserves some honest assessments about its merits or demerits, whatever they might be.
To start with, WonderCon 2013 allowed con badge pick-up and pro pass pick-up from noon the day before the con, always a good move. The staff were friendly and helpful, and it was a transaction bound to only take a couple of minutes, whatever the need. Glimpses of the convention center were promising: it’s a fairly spacious location with lots of impressive glass allowing light in, and a wide pedestrian zone in several directions, including fountains and palm tree lined seating nooks. The hotels in the same pedestrian complex as the convention center offered discount rates for the con weekend that were comparable, if not a little lower than the hotel deals available for other mid-sized cons on either coast, and rooms were still available for booking near the con period. The only downside of the hotels is that a couple of them appeared a little understaffed to handle the sudden influx of arriving guests between 7PM and midnight the night before the con opened, meaning somewhat long lines for check-in and a lack of staff to answer the needs of guests who had already checked in.
The con opened with less hassle. The lines were long for entry, but moved briskly, and once the initial entry period was over, there was an ease of access that was enviable in comparison to big cons like NYCC. All doors were available for entry from the exterior of the complex, regardless of the type of pass you might have, and then badges were checked before entry to the floor itself. This ease of access had some helpful implications. If during the day, you happened to want to return to the surrounding hotels to drop off heavy bags of con purchases, you could do so in a matter of minutes and be right back on the floor or into panels without missing a beat. These observations apply to Friday, the first day of the con. Saturday is expected to be the more high volume day of the convention, with passes sold out well in advance, and the procedure for admission may change to handle these numbers.
The interior of the convention center has an unusual layout, with halls and walkways front-loaded, including tall stairways and escalators leading up to three floors, two of which, as well as the basement, are used for panels and events, with the first floor mainly dedicated to the con floor. On a day of reasonable numbers of attendees (and Friday passes did eventually sell out early in the day), this functioned very well. There were no circuitous hallways needed to reach the upper or lower floors. The open areas, however, are a little narrow, and its possible that on Saturday this could lead to more traffic jams, but since all passages lead in straight lines, it’s likely to move reasonably quickly, rather than requiring complex strategies to get from A to B.
The floor itself is spacious, and has a wide range of tables and booths that fans would consider a staple of cons from major publishers, to small publisher tables, a few video game features, and plenty of small artisan sellers. Wonder of wonders, there were even freebies of comics and ephemera available from several publishers, something that seems to have disappeared from NYCC, but remains for the savvy at SDCC. Fan reactions were positive. Despite reasonably high numbers of influx, the passage ways between booths were navigable, even with cosplay photo options straddling the thoroughfares. Cosplay was strongly represented, though not a dominant feature of the day, and without the need to rush in order to spend long periods pushing through crowds, even the cosplayers seemed in a pleasant mood, more than willing to pose for photos and interact before going to hunt down a variant comic or discount trade on their list.
There weren’t a massive number of variant comics made available for WonderCon 2013, but the ones that were received a lot of attention. Dark Horse variants drew lines that moved briskly, whereas DC’s variants of BATMAN and JUSTICE LEAGUE titles were a little more unwieldy. To their credit, con staff kept the lines in order, but if you wanted a DC variant from WC 2013, it took a little determination and maybe an eye toward timing. Close to closing time for the day, the lines were only a quarter of their previous eye-rolling length. A common feature of the cons and local businesses was the overarching politeness and patience of staff. Maybe it’s part of the “happiest place on earth” Disneyland motif.
The panels offered at WC 2013 are also somewhat limited in number and range, with fewer cult-following creators as guests. That’s not to say that WC lacked worthy guests, but they were a little strapped to participate in several panels each to carry the load. The atmosphere of the con, more pleasant because of less stress and crowding, seemed to bleed into the experience of the guests as well, and they appeared laid back and informal in panels. Because things weren’t overcrowded, there wasn’t a need to stand in long lines to access panels with creators and pros, and there was more of a possibility that you’d be able to ask your own questions during Q and A sessions rather than battling it out to make it into long queues for the mike. During floor signings, creators seemed equally at ease and with a less crowded atmosphere, they were happy to chat with fans and actually had the time and space to respond to fans, often expressing their own gratitude for the support.
So, all in all, the con is showing strong signs of being well-organized, friendly, and appealing to fans. Enthusiasm was high, with plenty of excited chatter rather than grumbling complaints about discomfort. The outside areas available for relaxing contributed to this, and the pleasant weather didn’t hurt, either. It made the con feel more about a con space rather than a building that pedestrian areas surrounded the convention center with outdoor seating, and that the floor itself had an outdoor atrium with food vendors to complement its floor-based foodcourt, with seating available.
Right now, Wondercon in Anaheim has all of the amenities of a mid-sized con on its way to becoming a large con without large con problems to contend with. It’s location may be a problem, but there are some selling points. Firstly, even flying into LAX versus a more local airport means only a reasonably priced shuttle ride to the venue complex, and secondly, there is a strong potential in Anaheim for a family-friendly experience. Cons are great for kids, and plenty were in attendance (some of the greatest cosplayers, in fact), but, of course, all the Disney locations are within a couple of miles radius of the convention center. Several pros I spoke to brought their families with them because of this feature, and were having a blast. In several panels, creators pointed out their spouses and kids in attendance, and the Disney location was, again, one of the reasons. Of course, this would mainly appeal to the demographic who have kids, but it was an interesting extra dimension to the con experience. Whether a Disney fan or not, the presence of Disney means lots of pedestrian areas, local transport routes, and two large restaurant complexes near the convention center. Within a mile of con, you could choose from dozens of restaurants and bars, and plenty of shopping to boot. So even though Anaheim seems like a strange location for the con due to its relative isolation, within Anaheim operating without a car and still having a night-life is definitely possible.
Saturday, the biggest con day, may well be more trying for attendees, and any weaknesses beneath the surface in terms of planning and resources will no doubt become apparent, but taking the first day of WonderCon in Anaheim on its own, and weighing its virtues comes with plenty of surprises. In short, it felt easy to attend, interesting to observe, and exhibited a lot of the strengths of a well run con in an appropriate location. It may not be WonderCon in San Francisco, but it was still WonderCon, with a commitment to comics, pop culture, and the needs of fans.
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.