If SDCC is infamous for anything, it’s for its awe-inspiring lines that local news stations love to show off each morning of the show. Each person who lines up early is there to either make it into a panel, to rush onto the Exhibit Hall or just to take it all in for the first time.
This part of the guide is going to explain how to navigate the immense yet crowded Exhibit Hall and maximize your chances to get the autograph or exclusive you’re dying to get. I’ll go over when to line up, how the lines work, how a booth may structure their autograph policies, and the many pitfalls to avoid whilst making your attempt.
Before I go over these, Parks and Cons produce an excellent video every year about changes to the Exhibit Hall and what to expect from the bigger booths. They also give general advice for both newbies and veterans alike. I would recommend you watch their latest video embedded below.
Some exclusives such as Funko, Hasbro, UCC as well as certain signings are only available through the official SDCC exclusives portal. These are lottery-based exclusives that take place in the exclusives portal on your Member ID login page. Here, you submit interest and SDCC will randomly select people to participate. This year, SDCC alotted “credits” for each day you had a badge for. These credits were essentially digital lottery tickets that you could use for the exclusives you were most interested in. The portal closed at 12pm on July 9th and winners were notified a few days later. There’s not much to say here other than there is not enough information in order to know how to maximize your chances with your credits. Even if we know there are around 130,000 eligible people to participate, not everyone has to and not everyone is going to be after the same exclusives as you are. It’s all the luck of the draw on these.
When should I line up?
This is a difficult question as the answer depends on what exactly your goals are. Before I delve into my recommended line-up times, we need to keep a couple of things in mind. First, there are tens of thousands of people attending this show. That means that simply because there is such a high density of people, lines will be huge for even the most niche things. Even if you perceive a certain panel or exclusive as “unpopular” or “easy to get,” there will still be hundreds of people with the same idea. As such, it’s always safest to be there earlier as opposed to later.
Early morning “Everything else” line
The second thing to keep in mind is that the lines are long. You could be waiting for hours on end depending on what you want to do. Maybe that seems obvious, but you have to really deem something worth this amount of time that you’re inevitably going to invest. You also have to mentally prepare yourself for failure. Even if you line up as early as humanly possible, things happen and you don’t always succeed.
When you arrive at the convention center, there are two lines. One line is for literally everything that is not Hall H. And the other line is for Hall H, which is the largest panel room in the building. This is typically reserved for panels like Game of Thrones and Marvel’s Avengers.
If you do not know where to go, ask a volunteer! They will be happy to help you.
Over the years, my comfort level has been to arrive in line between 3-3:30AM. This is to maximize the chances of being towards the front of the exhibit hall line in order to secure an exclusive or autograph wristband. You absolutely DO NOT have to line up this early. I do, however, suggest being in line before 6AM or so for a couple of reasons. First, the convention center will normally open around that time to let people into the building. The Exhibit Hall does not open until 9:30AM but the building will start conducting operations and will allow people in around 6AM. When this happens, the lines are condensed and everyone begins to move into their desired line (including panel lines).
I’m finally inside! Where do I go?
Once the volunteer and security staff begin moving the line, the second you walk into the building, there is no line. You are free to walk past or speed walk past people if you so desire. Depending on your destination, it can be kind of a haul. Some will go straight to Ballroom 20, the second-largest panel room in the building. Others will go to the western Exhibit Hall line, and others will race to the Sails Pavillion for specific autographs lines or the eastern Exhibit Hall line. It is essential that you check out the Unofficial Blog’s line guide if you aren’t very familiar with all of the different places. If you won something in the exclusives portal, you’ll need to know where to claim it in the morning.
Hall G on the left part is the western entrance, and the upper right corner is where you come down from the Sails Pavillion.
If you want to get into the Exhibit Hall as fast as possible, you have two choices. When you enter the building you will immediately go up the escalator. Once you are at the top, you walk down the hall to the right. You keep going until you have walked past the Sails Pavillion and the Ballroom 20 line. You wrap around the building until you see the escalator and the people sitting down in front of it. You have now made it to the western Exhibit Hall line. You will go down the escalator and enter the hall through Hall G when the convention opens.
If you walk into the Sails Pavillion and walk all the way down, you will find chutes of people waiting in line for the Exhibit Hall. You will enter the hall on the top right portion of the map that I have marked.
The main difference between the two lines is mainly where you enter the hall. Choose the line that best positions you to be closest to the booth you want to be at first thing in the morning. If your destination is sort of in the middle such as VIZ Media or Dark Horse, I would recommend lining up in the western line.
The hallway you walk down to move towards Sails, Ballroom 20, and other panels.
The western line will be let inside more leniently than the Sails Pavillion line. Once the doors open, people ferociously push and shove whilst the front of the line tries to safely make it down an escalator. Once you reach the floor, it’s a free for all of speed-walking or running. Do not run. If you run you run the risk of staff stopping you and kicking you out. While rare, I don’t recommend taking the chance.
People do not always push and shove when the line is let in but last year in 2018 it was especially bad and I literally moved forward through the crowd moving me. Please be aware of this in case you have any sort of mobility issue or are prone to anxiety or panic attacks as this is not a great experience.
If this is the case, you may wonder why people don’t just opt for the Sails Pavillion line instead. The Sails Pavillion line is organized by chutes. This means that once doors open, a volunteer walks the first chute down to the floor, then repeats the process with the rest of the lines. This can mean a slower entry to the Exhibit Hall depending on your place in line, but I would argue it is still faster (and possibly safer) if your destination is on the eastern side of the hall.
Autograph and Exclusives
Now you’ve made it into the hall and you’re rushing to the booth for your autograph ticket or exclusive. What do you need to look out for? How do they distribute them? Are they going to run out?
To figure this out we need to go to the website or Twitter for the company’s booth and read the details. Some companies like Marvel, do an in booth raffle for the day’s signings. Last year, I went to Marvel without knowing about the raffle in the hopes of getting into the signing for the upcoming Spider-Man for PS4 video game. I waiting in line, got to the front, pushed a button and got nothing. Had I perhaps visited Marvel’s website for the booth details or done research on the SDCC Unofficial Blog I probably could have avoided this.
Some booths will distribute autograph tickets/wristbands first thing in the morning on a first-come, first-served basis. This is the best-case scenario in my experience as it rewards you for getting in line early as you will be more likely to make it there before others. Simply get to the booth, identify their line and a staff member will put a wristband on you when you get to the front. You will be asked to come back at a later time for the signing. Don’t forget to ask if they will provide something to be signed such as a poster or book! You may have to bring something yourself. Make sure to ask any other questions about their autograph policies and BE NICE! Many of these people do not interact with thousands of convention-goers for a living and there is no excuse to be anything but polite to them. As the Parks and Cons Video I linked above says, they are not the gatekeeper to the exclusive or autograph you want. They are simply at work, doing the best that they can. They will be more willing to help you if you are nice.
For exclusives and merchandise, many booths will operate a merchandise line where they sell things on a first-come, first-served basis. They will also cap their lines! If you do not make it in time, you may find the line has closed and you will be asked to come back later. Last year, my goal was to obtain the My Hero Academia exclusives to give to my brother for his graduation. By going to Marvel first and whiffing on an autograph ticket, I missed my chance to get into the VIZ Media line, where I observed their booth being nearly shut down due to overwhelming demand. If a line is capped, there is almost no point in hovering as they will wait for a significant portion of the line to move up before even thinking about letting more people into line.
Of particular importance is to research what time exactly autographs tickets will be distributed. The best-case scenario is when the hall opens at 9:30AM, that way you can get there, get your ticket, and go. If it’s any later, say at 10PM, massive crowds may form as inpatient attendees bombard an unprepared booth.
Some booths will sell through exclusives as people come. Others will only allow a certain allotment of each item to be sold per day so that they won’t sell out before others have a chance to get it. The booth likely will not tell you which they are doing, but it’s important to keep in mind.
Remember that going to something first thing in the morning has an opportunity cost. Going for one exclusive or autograph may mean forsaking another on that particular day. Make sure you do your research and prepare in advance.
When you do get your autograph ticket, ask the booth when you should come back to line up for it. You’re still guaranteed to get the autograph, but you still have to be present at the time they ask of you. Always arrive earlier than the time they tell you to come back.
Some signings require a lottery to take place in the Sails Pavillion at specific times. Typically this happens in the morning before the Exhibit Hall opens. Depending on the policies of the booth, if you fail to draw a winning ticket, you can get back in line. The only catch is that the line is probably several hundred deep by that point. Do not lose your ticket if you win! It is the only thing that will get you entry into the signing.
Example of a Sails Pavillion autograph ticket. Other companies may use wristbands or less detailed tickets.
One thing to look out for while shopping for exclusives are people with exhibitor badges. Yes, in some cases, people working in other booths will actually go and get into lines before anyone with a regular attendee badge has even entered the hall. When I went to VIZ Media last year on another day, I walked into line and saw two cosplayers who I had not seen in line with me outside. I asked them what time they lined up and they told me they were working at another booth in the Exhibit Hall.
There is almost nothing you can do about this if the booth you are in does not have rules against it. I know that Blizzard has typically badge checked people and has not allowed vendors to be in their line.
Another pitfall to watch out for is openly discussing buying items for other people. If you’re overheard discussing buying for friends, you may be barred from buying altogether. You can still “buy for friends” but just ask for the items in the quantities you need rather than break a booth rule by accident. Some items like those at the Hasbro booth will require an ID check and the booth will mark the back of your badge with a sharpie. This is one way that their “1 per person” policy is enforced.
Some places on the floor are extremely congested! People will rubberneck at booths with live programming and other booths will be densely populated with lines and photo takers. Try to spot the clearest routes to your destination while moving through the hall.
That about covers my tips for navigating the Exhibit Hall and getting your autographs. Remember, you don’t have to be a maniac like me and sit in line for hours on end to get something cool. I’ve just found the most success with the methods I’ve described. It has to be worth it to you, and for me, being able to interact with a creator whose work has impacted me significantly is absolutely worth it. Even tho it’s just for a few moments, getting to say thank you in person is enough for me.
In part 3 I’ll be going over all my knowledge of panels and other general tips I have for the show. Thanks for reading.