Several years ago while chaperoning a group of college students through Europe as part of a study-abroad program my wife was leading, we took a cruise through the Greek islands. I was clearly not enjoying myself and one of the students gave me a piece of advice. She said that the way to make a cruise fun was to realize that you were stuck on a boat for a few days and that even though most of the entertainment was cheesy and dumb, that was all you had. So you might as well make the best of it. Take it for what it is and enjoy yourself.
Simple advice but it worked. The games were lame, the activities were not my cup of tea, and the music (consisting of Eastern Europeans singing Abba tunes) was god awful, but it was all there was so I leaned into the ridiculousness and learned to have fun.
I kept thinking about that advice whilst attending this year's Wizard World in Tulsa. Cons have the same forced types of entertainment shellacked in their own idiosyncratic shell. There are celebrities telling the same stories they’ve told a hundred times at other cons and posing for pictures for a steep price. There are cosplayers decked out in inconceivably cool costumes of their own design. And there are vendors selling all sorts of nerd gear for a (usually) reasonable price. All of this is pretty cool, but after you’ve been to a few of them, things can start to feel repetitive.
During my review of last year’s Wizard World, I noted that it might be my last one, to quote: “For me, it's just not that exciting anymore. Unless they get a celebrity that I really love, or find some other way to liven things up, I’ll likely be skipping the event next year (that is if they even have it in Tulsa again).”
Well, they got Cary Elwes and I got my tickets. Or I should say my wife got them. She’s a super The Princess Bride fan and the idea of being in the same room as Wesley was more than enough for her money to be laid down. I love that movie too and Elwes seems like an interesting guy so I allowed myself to get a little excited. I got even more excited when I read Chad Derdowski's review of the Chicago Wizard World event.
It wasn’t until the morning of that I realized the event had been moved from its normal site at the Cox Business Center in downtown Tulsa to the Renaissance Hotel. This made perfect sense to me as last year's attendance was way down and thus going from the enormous Cox Business Center to a much smaller hotel would surely be less expensive for the Wizard World people. But it would also add energy to the event. Nothing sucks the life out of an event faster than poor attendance. Putting it in a smaller venue, even if the same number of people attended, would make it feel more crowded and thus the energy of the place would be higher.
So yes, despite my feelings from last year, I managed to not only go this year but to be really excited as I left my house. Even brought my eight-year-old daughter with me. Why then did I go home some two hours later completely disappointed?
The thing about moving it to a smaller venue is that it does give the place more energy, but it also makes it much more crowded. It's hard to enjoy the vendors and the cosplayers when everyone is so squished to gather you can hardly move. The most common word I heard this year was “sorry.”
I don’t know what the overall count on the vendors was this year but it seemed like there were fewer of them. And those there seemed less excited to be there and more full of the type of stuff you can buy at your local Target or Barnes & Nobles. I like indie shops with handmade artwork, and while there were a few of those in attendance, they seemed smaller in size and less in number. The vendor I bought some little action figures for my daughter from even grumbled at me when I asked him how it was going. “I don’t like these tiny cons” he said - to me, a man handing him money for his wares in a place I’d paid money to be at and presumably to have a good time.
Then came Cary Elwes. In the Cox Business Center, all the celebrity talks were held in various conference rooms. That place has a couple of very large ones and so the bigger celebrities could have a large audience in a place designed for them to be heard. The Renaissance Hotel definitely had conference rooms as that’s where many of these non-celebrity workshops were being held, but I guess the powers that be decided they were too small and so they decided to have Cary Elwes (easily the biggest celebrity besides Jason Mamoa attending - and Mamoa wasn’t giving a talk) speak on a tiny stage in at the entrance/exit to the vendor area.
It was set up so that if you wanted to stand (for there were no chairs) in an area where you could see Mr. Elwes, then you were also right in the way of everybody entering or exiting the place. We chose a spot to the side so as to not be so obtrusive but I could barely hear him speak, even though he was capably miked up. Lots of folks had no interest in listening to Cary Elwes and were going about their business with the vendors, and the noise was voluminous.
My daughter was quite annoyed as she didn’t know who Cary Elwes was, or what he was doing and the noise was bothering her so we left after a few minutes. My wife stayed but tells me he only talked for 20 minutes (he was on the schedule for 45). We made the vendor rounds once more (and I did manage some to find some cool postcards from an independent artist), then took off for home.
Here’s the thing. Moving Wizard World to a smaller venue still makes sense. Tulsa is never going to draw the big named A-List celebrities (Sorry, Cary Elwes. I love you but you are beloved for a movie made in the 1980s) and thus it's never going to draw gigantic crowds. But at the same time, it needs to be better organized. Signage has always been bad for this con, but we spent our first 15 minutes just trying to figure out where Cary Elwes was going to be. People shouldn't have to ask around to figure out how to see your biggest name at the event. Placing him in the midst of an already over-crowded convention floor where thousands of people will be milling about not interested in your speaker is a terrible move.
I’m a grumpy old man who hates crowds and loud noises. I grew tired of the chaos that comes with these things last year. My wife is the same way. My daughter gets overwhelmed easily. Clearly, this event was not for us. I saw lots of families in attendance. This year seemed much more oriented towards children than ever before (we weren’t there at the right time, but they had several workshops designed with kids in mind). Lots of people were having fun. Like a sea cruise if you go in with the right frame of mind you can have lots of fun even when things are a little goofy and not quite perfected.
Wizard World will be in Tulsa once again on Sunday and if you adjust your expectations there is plenty of fun to be had. Just don’t expect to be able to hear the main speakers very well.