09 August 2015

GenCon with Geeklets, Part 1 (General Advice)

We have a history of taking our infant children on trips that may appear ill-advised at first blush, starting with Cups and the expedition to Chichen Itza and Cancun at six weeks of age. In keeping with that grand tradition, Pax made her first convention appearance at GenCon 2015 when she was just a week old.

I don't recommend doing this, but with a laid-back baby and a quick delivery recovery it went better than we had planned for. We'd booked no events for me at all, anticipating Pax and I would have to spend our time in the hotel room or hunting for safe feeding spaces; with family and friends assistance I managed a True Dungeon run, a concert, and some game demos in addition to haunting the vendor hall and wrangling kids.

We started taking kids to GenCon when Cups was three years old, and she'll be turning nine before the next con. The Cap'n came for the first time at about nine months old. This was also the first year that we've dared to bring all of the kids for all four days (we checked in Wednesday night and checked out Sunday) due to an abundance of caution and consequent school schedules. We learned a lot, and we confirmed some suspicions that we've had before. Cups is now old enough to independently participate in GenCon, and required her own badge this year; next year she'll be officially over the threshold for the kid registration but this year was her emotional and social transition.

So this is an extremely long and multi-part post about doing GenCon with young kids -- 8 and under -- based on the last six years worth of experience. Our kids run the gamut from gregarious extrovert to highly functional introvert to extremely chill baby, so your mileage may vary with regard to fatigue levels and meal options. Also, we're interested in everything (we call it professionally curious) and so our experience is often a high-velocity, high-intensity mix of gaming, geeking out, and cosplay. Not everyone enjoys everything.

General Advice:

GenCon allows you to pre-register your children and I highly recommend it. For free, you'll get a sturdy plastic armband that has your kid's name, your name, and your phone number on it. It's the venue kind that snaps on and can only be removed with scissors. Your kid will also have a badge number, which means they (or you for them) can register for KID tagged events, participate in some demos that track badge information, and when they get found someone can call you.

Book a hotel closely connected to the convention center (JW Marriott, Marriott, Westin, Hyatt, Crowne Plaza) if your budget allows it. It's going to be expensive. You are going to get your money's worth the first time you take your overstimulated overtired kiddo back to the room for quiet time and naps, without waiting for a shuttle. And you will need to take your overstimulated overtired kiddo back to the room, or you may find yourself shouting. In public. Tears will ensue. You may need to take your overstimulated overtired self back to the room for naps as well. Conventions with kids are exhausting.

Work in pairs or groups. If you can connect with another family with kids and share duties, all the better, but at this age someone will need to be with the kids all the time, so don't plan to do adult activities unless you have someone willing to sit out and kid-watch. Same thing with playing RPG's (tabletop games are sometimes more forgiving) -- if you can take turns and not schedule yourselves for the same time slots, then you'll get more out of the con and there will be fewer opportunities for tears. If you are in a mixed marriage with a non-gaming spouse then bully for you. Your spouse may find one of the more than 250 spouse activities appealing, so again schedule accordingly. We are blessed to be part of a multi-family gaming group, and even our childfree friends are child-friendly, so sharing duties makes it possible for everyone to have fun. If you are alone at the con with kids, make friends. Use the sitting services. Carve out time for yourself.

Once our kids hit about 2 years old, they start to be more interested in the convention itself, particularly in the social aspects. There's a lot to do and a lot to see, and it can definitely be overwhelming for the toddler and preschool demographic. Our 3-6 year olds have previously come just on weekends and evenings, and we've found that about two days of full-blown Con Time are about the most they can handle. After that, the whining increases and the fun quotient decreases.

We have several sets of grandparents whom we have frequently taken advantage of, and they will take the kids to offsite activities such as the Indianapolis Zoo, Whitewater State Park, or the Indiana State Museum -- all of which are in downtown Indy (the Zoo is a bit of a hike) -- the Children's Museum (3-4 miles north), or even to the mall (connected via skyway) for some decompression time. If you can build this into your schedule you may be able to extend the con time, but there is so much going on that it's hard for the littles to process four whole days. Your littles may vary.

World's hungriest baby.


Feeding littles: This is sometimes challenging. Despite our best efforts, the Cap'n considers anything other than box-to-plate macaroni and cheese, quesadillas, and chicken nuggets to be "not food" of the type that mysteriously populates his plate at home and which he will only eat under duress. Cups is only slightly more adventurous. The food trucks do not typically serve anything that could be found in a box.

If your kid is okay with their macaroni coming with real melted cheese, or their quesadillas with chicken, or with eating real food then I would recommend the food trucks as a great place to find food adventures. If your little is picky, then there is a food court in Circle Center Mall, hot dogs and pizza at the cafe under the escalators, nachos and hot dogs at the food stands in the game and dealer halls, or chicken tenders and burgers at the mini-food courts by Georgia Street and Hall B. Be aware that the convention hall food courts close early and often, as well as charging convention hall prices for convention hall food quality (the brats are not bad at $4 a pop).

Serious cupcakes

Cupcakes from the food trucks should be obtained on a 2 kids per cupcake basis because they are huge. Seriously huge. Also, ice cream served in a donut is surprisingly tasty. Do not forget dessert. If you are a beer drinker, Sun King will sell you beer that you can then carry around the food truck area, but you can't take it outside the fenced-off section of the trucks. Do not feed this to your littles, obviously, and they can't go into the beer garden proper, but one person can buy multiple beers, so here is another place where friends can help.

DO NOT forget to eat at regular intervals. Hungry gamers are grumpy gamers, and low blood sugar makes everything worse. More importantly, hungry littles are terrible tiny animals that will quickly evolve into kaiju and destroy your entire experience. Breakfast is extremely important when you are going into the con, and your hotel will serve a very nice and potentially extremely pricey version of this to you and your children. If you do not have free breakfast provided, the costs will add up quickly (our family of four has historically rung up at about $60 for breakfast at the hotel). We've found that it's more frugal and quite satisfying to have breakfast in the room. Pop-tarts, granola bars, single-serve cereal boxes with milk (you can buy UHT treated individual milk containers that do not require refrigeration), and juice boxes can be obtained for less than $60, and will last the whole con.

Snacks are similarly something that you will want to have on hand -- nothing in the convention center is quick or cheap, and our littles frequently conflate boredom and hunger. Nobody has given us any trouble for munching on granola bars, trail mix, or goldfish, but if your little throws food there may be consequences. Again, if you have perishables or special needs on your list, you may or may not have a fridge in your hotel room. Some years there is a waiting list for refrigerators. You should check with your hotel first if you are going to need one.


You're going to spend a lot of time at the Family Fun Pavilion in this age group -- our kids' favorite activities in the 3-6 year range are the Family Fun Pavilion, the babysitting services, and asking cosplayers about their costumes. Do not despair: there are activities for your child that do not involve you sitting on a chair making awkward conversation with other parents. We'll get to those in a moment.

Family Fun

If you need a babysitting service, that's been provided historically by Sitters to the Rescue, which is an Indianapolis based group who take over a room and provide childcare to the con. They charge about $12 an hour per child and have previously had a 3 hour minimum, but our experience with them, both at GenCon and at other conventions where they have provided childcare, has been stellar. There are appropriate staffing levels (licensed and bonded, background checks, etc), craft and art supplies provided, toys for the littles, and they make an effort to know the children they're caring for. It's not cheap but it's quality. As far as I know they will take any age child.

Family Fun, however, is not a babysitting service. Someone responsible (over 16) will need to be with the kids there (They will check. They will call you to come get your kid, if you leave them. This is their legal responsibility). It is, however, a combination craft space, game space, and place to blow off steam. There's a big table full of games the kids can play (most of them have all their pieces) and tables to play them on. There are crayons and coloring projects and art supplies. There is usually a table doing plaster masks or crafts (they have aprons even!) and then there's an active space. This year there was a castle made of boxes with hidden passages, some cardboard knights' armor, and the off and on appearance of pool noodle swords. On the weekends, there's face painting ($5-$20).

Our kids think this is some kind of child paradise. This year Cups has finally started to grow out of it but prior to that the only appeal they found in the dealer's hall was the Family Fun space and its environs. Fortunately, there are some kids activities scheduled in the general vicinity.

Captain Pete and his crew do a daily kids event at 11 AM - it's one generic ticket or $2 to pre-register, and we've never been turned away. Basically there's a themed adventure game involving getting dressed up in costume and doing some kind of turn-based kid activity. Frequently this involves playing with plastic figures, then setting up a diorama and throwing balls at said plastic figures. It's sort of organized chaos and it's been going on for years, so they're good at what they do. Prizes are often given out.

There are several other events by the same crew, as well as some other kids' games in the area. Take a look at the catalog. Lots of them take just a few generics. Hero Kids had several games scheduled, and the Monte Cook crew were running demos of No Thank You, Evil! at their booth, which I cannot recommend highly enough.

KID category events do not require an official badge for participation, so you can browse the catalog by category. This section also includes preregistration for the babysitting services -- theoretically there is a quantity limit so preregistering may be a good idea if you know you're going to require a sitter.

There are usually some creative activities that kids can participate in -- in the past there's been a group making boffer swords (I didn't see them this year); there were some make-your-own pony tails or wizard wand workshops offered this year. As mentioned above, plaster crafts are usually going on a rotating basis within the pavilion itself and provide a good intermittent activity (you have to wait for them to dry before painting).

Walking the dealer's hall with young kids can be daunting. You may not get to demo All The Games that you want to look at; I'd recommend keeping a to-do list and adding booth numbers/names so you can come back on your own at a later point in the con to demo or ask questions at your leisure. Consider getting the Cheese Weasel ConQuest cards and asking your littles to help you find particular booths -- the Cheese Weasel booth is usually located outside the dealer's hall and they'll be happy to give you a set of cards with sponsor booths on them. Find all the booths and return the cards to be entered in a drawing for some great stuff, or don't worry about returning the cards and just use them to keep the littles motivated. (Note: New this year is an app for Android that mirrors the cards, if you are a smartphone kind of geek).

A surprising number of vendors have kid-friendly games and will demo to your littles' level. Many of these vendors cluster near the Family Fun Pavilion, but so do some of the Edutainment games (pro tip: kids can always tell when you're trying to teach them something) and the more mainstream game vendors. Don't hesitate to ask about demos at any booth, but especially the ones that have bright colored boxes. Don't be afraid to try things out. You are the only person who can accurately judge your kid's game-readiness.

Life Sized!

Calliope Games, Iello, and Mayfair have historically offered games that were able to be played with our kids. Sometimes your littles will want to play a game that is above their level (Cap'n really likes to do this). It's possible with many board games to give your little their own pieces and then just ignore them for scoring purposes, while letting them flagrantly reinterpret the rules. We've had a great experience with other con-goers being willing to cut the littles slack in the demos as well. Iello's demo room (outside the dealer hall) was especially good about helping us find age-appropriate games.

Mayfair usually has some Really Big games outside the dealer's hall, and Iello had a "life-sized" King of Tokyo game. Try and get in on one of these if you are able; the sheer scale of the pieces makes it a lot of fun but it is a ticketed event. I'd recommend getting a ticket for you and letting the little play your team rather than to try to ticket them individually; this will cut down on frustration for other players if your little gets bored/wants to cheat/the novelty wears off.

Cosplay and Costuming:

From a cosplay standpoint, kids love to dress up and our kids find cosplay to be an important part of con-going (we have to specifically tell them if we are going to a game-focused con so they have their cosplay expectations set lower). Simple costumes of the Hallowe'en clearance variety may give your little everything they want and more; the thrill of dressing up is often sufficient as its own reward. If your Big Kid wants to do more or you can't find the costumes you want then remember to keep it simple. The costumes I make for the kids are machine washable, have reinforced seams, and can go on and off in five minutes or less. There should be no wigs for littles -- if you want colored hair, buy spray-on temporary color. Our Big Kid wore a wig for Leia this year and there was a lot of "Mom this itches" going on, so plan accordingly.

Princess Leia and Dazzler

Props and accessories MUST have a place to hang or fasten on to the costume -- learn from our experience carrying Captain America's shield through multiple cons. Face paint is a lot of fun but will wear off onto everything in this age group so I tend to avoid it or use tattoo glitter (the kind that goes on with glue and requires alcohol to remove) to decorate faces. I'm all about durability.

Our reception within the cosplay community has been fantastic. Don't be afraid to not know who someone is cosplaying as, and encourage your children to ask if they are curious. Some of the scarier costumed folks are super nice under the masks, and as a general rule of thumb cosplayers are passionate about the characters they're playing and will be happy to fill you and your kids in. Short simple answers will usually satisfy the curious little (my favorite was "I'm Bane. I'm a bad guy who fights Batman"), so don't worry about getting into inappropriate backstory. Cosplayers are pretty smart people; they're not in the habit of giving gory details to tiny onlookers.

Lining up for the Cosplay Parade.

Take pictures. Ask first; not only is it polite but you'll get a better shot. Your little is generally welcome in the picture and it's a real thrill for them sometimes. Please don't stand in the middle of the walkway and shoot -- it leads to congestion, bad pictures, and worse karma. Similarly please don't shoot in the middle of the vendor hall. Step to the side (most experienced cosplayers will do this automatically) so you don't clog the hallways. Also try not to stop folks if they're clearly heading somewhere in a hurry as cosplayers also game and go to events, and it's hard to choose between beinrude and being late.

Your littles and Big Kids will probably enjoy the costume parade (either participating or watching), although the under-5 crowd may do better watching than walking. It's on Saturday afternoon about 3, and parades through the entire first floor of the convention center. Kids can usually get priority seating at the front of the throng or on shoulders for watching. It's very exciting to see your heroes on parade and many of the cosplayers doing Disney or superhero costumes are happy to be recognized. We're specifically instructed NOT to stop for pictures during the parade, so be forewarned, but waving and high-5's are acceptable.

Next up: infants and toddler-specific pointers...