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San Diego Comic-Con: Masquerade Viewing Guide

Masquerades and costume contests have long been the main evening event at many comic conventions, and San Diego Comic-Con is no exception. In fact, they have one of the bigger masquerades on the comic con circuit. It’s the centerpiece of Saturday evening programming, and despite the rise in popularity of offsite parties it remains a big draw.

In short, the SDCC Masquerade is a stage show where contestants wear costumes (usually that they also designed and built themselves) and sometimes perform short skits. Contestants have the chance to win some great prizes from Comic-Con and other sponsors. And it’s a great chance to really experience the con community that is huge part of Comic-Con.

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This guide will specifically cover the Comic-Con Masquerade, but it’s very similar to the masquerade at SDCC’s sister show, WonderCon. While WonderCon doesn’t offer simulcast rooms, it’s no trouble to pop in a few minutes before the show starts and find a seat. Otherwise, the actual masquerades are essentially the same.

The Comic-Con International Masquerade is typically scheduled Saturday night at 8:30pm in Ballroom 20. However, there are numerous viewing options and plenty of fun traditions as well. Read on for a full guide to this great Comic-Con staple.

Participants

Signups open months in advance, and usually close by Memorial Day. Contestants have to attend an orientation panel at the con and are also assigned a time to rehearse in the Masquerade rehearsal room.

Masquerade 101

For those interested in competing in the Masquerade next year, Comic-Con usually offers a Masquerade 101 panel during the convention; consult your Comic-Con schedule.WCA2015Masquerade.11

Masquerade Tickets

Want to watch the Masquerade live on Saturday night in Ballroom 20? Comic-Con distrubutes tickets on Saturday at noon, upstairs outside Ballroom 20 at the Masquerade stand. Fans will line up for these tickets Saturday morning once the convention center opens, but are free to enjoy the rest of their day after tickets are handed out at noon. These are first-come, first-serve – not a lottery like many other events (especially signings) at Comic-Con.

In recent years, the popularity of both the Sails Pavilion party, Hall H evening programming, and offsite events has decreased demand for Masquerade tickets. As such, it may be possible to drop by the Masquerade table outside Ballroom 20 on Saturday afternoon and pick up tickets.

If you have tickets for the Masquerade in Ballroom 20, simply arrive an hour or two early (depending on how desperate you are to have the closest seats to the stage). There’s no need to spend all afternoon in line.

Simulcast Rooms

Prefer not to deal with waiting for tickets? Need a viewing option that’s a little more flexible? Comic-Con simulcasts the Masquerade to several additional rooms within the convention center. For 2015, the overflow seating/simulcast rooms were Rooms 5AB, 6A, and the Sails Pavilion. Tickets are not required for overflow areas. You’ll have no trouble simply popping into either of these rooms Saturday evening.

Sails Pavilion Party

Being in Ballroom 20 for the Masquerade is quite fun, but the best viewing spot is at the simulcast in the Sails Pavilion. Not only is the Masquerade simulcast in high quality on a giant screen, there’s free food and a cash bar available. Yes, free snacks! The spread is usually something like a nacho bar, a crudité platter, cheese and crackers, and/or some kind of cookies or cupcakes for dessert. In the corner of the room you’ll find a popcorn machine. The cash bar has recently begun selling themed cocktails as well. (2015’s party was Game of Thrones themed.)

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You can also bring your own food to this party, whether that’s a couple of snacks or a full dinner. (We’ve seen people haul in full-blown catering trays for their group meals.)

Seating is available either at a few tables and chairs, or in rows directly in front of the screen. The tables will fill up quickly – you’ll need to line up early to secure a table. Just want a seat (and some snacks)? Show up any time! While the Sails Pavilion party is popular, it’s yet to become so crowded it requires hours of waiting to get in. (Don’t let the long line outside scare you – there’s plenty of space inside.)

Two minor drawbacks: it’s often very cold in the Sails Pavilion (bring a sweater) and more than once the sound has been exceptionally loud (you always travel with a spare pair of earplugs, right?).

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When the Masquerade pauses for the judging break, the Sails Pavilion party kicks into high gear: the DJ starts spinning and the dance floor comes alive! You’ll see people of all ages bust a move on the dance floor, with many turning on their light sabers and creating their own light show.

The Sails Pavilion party might be the best kept secret at Comic-Con. You could spend your Saturday night getting glared at by bouncers at the big celebrity parties in the Gaslamp, or you could let your fellow geeks entertain you while Comic-Con themselves provide free snacks. Plus, the Masquerade takes their judging break around 10:30, and the awards ceremony is usually wrapped by midnight. That’s early enough that there’s still a little time for bar hopping afterwards if you’re so inclined.

Photo Calls
The WonderCon 2015 Best Original Design winner poses after the Masquerade.

The WonderCon 2015 Best Original Design winner poses after the Masquerade.

If you want photos of the cosplaying contestants, you may have to be patient. There is no flash photography allowed in Ballroom 20, and you probably won’t be close enough to get great photos anyway. There is a photo call area in a nearby room, but you must contact Comic-Con in advance to request access. (It’s a small area that’s generally reserved for press.) Your best chance will be to catch them afterwards – some contestants hang out after awards are announced. However, considering how late the event ends you could be ushered out of the now-closed convention center.

Contestants aren’t supposed to wear their costumes around the convention before the Masquerade – but afterwards is acceptable. Many will wear their costumes on Sunday, and since it’s generally a calmer day at the con you’ll have an easier time finding them.

Finally, Comic-Con does publish photos of the winners in the Sunday Newsletter (see below) and eventually posts a gallery on their website.

What You’ll See On Stage

What makes this a masquerade and not a costume contest? Comic-Con has an answer:

It’s more than just posing on stage, it’s about portraying characters too, creating moods, sometimes a sense of story. It’s an event of spectacle, drama, comedy, lightsaber battles, even some song and dance, where you never know what’s going to step onto the stage next.

Contestants have the option of simply walking across the stage and showing off their handiwork, but most choose to perform a short skit to pre-recorded music and/or dialogue. This is where things get really fun!

Masquerade host Phil Foglio.

Masquerade host Phil Foglio.

The longtime hosts for both the Comic-Con and WonderCon masquerades are Phil and Kaja Foglio, a very fun and lively couple who are both Hugo award winners. They’ll expect a little help calling out the contestant numbers – this is a fun tradition where the audience not only calls out the numbers, but also adds a variety of chants at the end. Listen to this sample from the 2015 WonderCon Masquerade:

After calling the number, tradition is to shout, “ah, ah, ah!” like the Count from Sesame Street. After that, well… it’s just whatever catches on with the crowd.

There can be anywhere from 30 – 50 entrants. Some will be solo acts, while others will compete in groups. Expect the show itself to last roughly 2 hours.

Judging Break

Once all the entrants have performed, the judges will leave to deliberate the winners. In the meantime, there will be some kind of on-stage intermission entertainment. The Saber Guild is a group of Star Wars fans who choreograph detailed lightsaber battles that have performed in the past; check them out at the 2015 WonderCon Masquerade:

At WonderCon 2016, The Corps Dance Crew (then going by the Survey Corps Dance Crew) gave a stunning dance performance.

Awards

When the judges return, the awards are handed out.

There are awards offered by various companies that look for the best contestant representing their brand – for example, Lucasfilm gives the best Star Wars costume a batch of collectibles. In 2015, a mysterious desert road racer who goes by Robert Acer gave a cash prize to the tune of $5,000. Frank & Sons Collectibles Show also usually gives a cash prize.

This Haunted Mansion group, the 2015 Best in Show winners, takes a selfie before accepting their medals.

This Haunted Mansion group, the 2015 Best in Show winners, takes a selfie before accepting their medals.

Comic-Con’s award categories are Best In Show, Judges’ Choice, Best Re-Creation, Best Original Design, Best Workmanship, Best Presentation, Most Beautiful, and Best Young Fan. These winners get custom-made Comic-Con Masquerade medals. Winners in these categories also get a free 4-day badge to SDCC 2016. This was added in response to complaints that many Masquerade participants were unable to get badges to the con – leaving the Masquerade with a few lean years in terms of entrants.

Don’t want to stay for the awards ceremony? They’ll print the winners in Sunday’s newsletter. If you’ve never picked up a Comic-Con newsletter, you’re missing out. Look for the stands outside the entrances to the exhibit hall, or upstairs outside the programming rooms. The newsletters also announce last-minute schedule changes, list the day’s autograph sessions, and have a grid of the day’s panel schedule.

Replay Panel

Can’t make it out to see the Masquerade on Saturday night? For legal reasons, Comic-Con can’t put video of the Masquerade online. But they do usually replay it Sunday afternoon; check your program schedule for the room and time.