April 2014

For the past three years, my husband and I have taken our two kids (now ages six and nine) to the Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo. I should preface this by saying that our family is not particularly into science fiction or comics — we started going in 2012 (the year the entire Star Trek TNG cast was there) because we had relatives who had registered as vendors at the conference and we thought we’d go down for the spectacle. While our first time was a bit of a culture shock (I clearly remember looking at my husband at one point and whispering “I can’t believe we’re at a Star Trek convention!”), over the years we’ve gotten to really enjoy the Expo and have always found things that appeal to us even if we’re not into all of the genres represented.

Now that we’re Expo veterans, I often get a lot of people asking questions or expressing confusion about the Expo. Many people see pictures of the costumes and the celebrity guests in the news and think that it might appeal to their kids, but aren’t quite sure how to navigate the conference. For those who have never been to a comic expo the Calgary Expo can be an alien affair (pun sort of intended) and with the Calgary event growing so quickly and physically expanding to different parts of the Stampede Grounds every year, it can be confusing even for repeat customers.

So, for the uninitiated, here’s what happens at the Expo: basically the various halls and rooms of the BMO Centre and the Big Four are filled with various tables and exhibitors. In the main exhibition halls you can buy a variety of nerd-related merchandise, ranging from collectible toys and costumes to, of course, comics. These areas also have tables manned by comic artists selling autographed books and custom artwork.

In other parts of the venue (this year it was BMO Hall D and the Big Four), you’ll find the celebrity guests. Now, if you’re dying to meet Dr. Who or Malfoy from Harry Potter, you can’t just waltz up to them and say hello. They sit at tables at scheduled times and fans have to book and pay for an autograph or photo op time. I find that this is something first-timers don’t quite understand — you’re unlikely to be able to interact with your favourite stars unless you pony up some money.

The other one way that you can feel some star power, however, is by attending panels. There are panel events scheduled all Expo long, with the bigger ones taking place in the Boyce Theatre or Stampede Corral. Most of the celeb guests participate in at least one panel, in which they do a short interview with a host and then take questions from the audience. These panels are open to anyone with an Expo wristband, but are subject to each theatre’s capacity.

So, how did I make the most of this with my family? Well, we started the day by hitting a smaller panel featuring Archie Comics artist and writer Dan Parent. Sci-fi and fantasy may not be our thing, but my daughter and I do love us some strips about teenage love triangles. We later headed to the main Expo hall to buy an autographed comic from Parent, which was a thrill for my daughter. We tried to get into another panel with all of the Hobbit actors, but were turned away because it was full. After wandering the Expo floor for a while (and spying some Hell on Wheels stars at their autograph tables), we hustled into the Corral for a very funny panel from geek queen Felicia Day. While our kids don’t know anything about her or her career, she gave some great words of wisdom about following her heart and pursuing her interests and not caring if her love of things like gaming was considered “geeky” or not for girls. It was a great takeaway for my kids even if they were hearing her name for the first time.

There was also a kids pavilion at the Expo this year (surrounded by huge blow ups of cartoon characters) but we found it loud and kind of uninviting, so we didn’t spend much time in there. Our son’s favourite part was just looking around at all of the costumes both inside the buildings and out on the Stampede Grounds, as well as spying things like the Han Solo in carbonite and R2D2 robot in one of the halls. By mid day the site was very crowded, however, and he started to get a little overwhelmed by the crowds.

It’s not too early to start thinking about next year’s Expo and if it’s an appropriate event to take your family to (tickets always sell out in advance). When the time comes next year think about whether or not your kids are okay with crowds, if they would be able to absorb the panel discussions, and if they will be frightened by some of the more extreme costumes. Most of all, develop a game plan in advance and manage your expectations so that you don’t just end up wandering around aimlessly without knowing what to do or where to go. It’ll make all the difference.