This is the third year for the Sci-Fi Valley Con in Altoona and I have been wanting to go to show my support for local conventions but other events scheduled of past years have interfered with my plans. Not this year, though. I threw on my vest and goggles, waxed my mustache and headed out.
Altoona is a little less than two hours from Pittsburgh and pretty much a straight shot out Route 22. This year’s venue, the Jaffa Shrine Center, is a big 1930s block of a Masonic building and the large Stargate out front made it clear that one had arrived at a con. There was also a large inflatable Laser Tag arena on the lawn.
Inside and first thing through the door was the replica Jurassic Park jeep that con organizers had built specifically for their con. The jeep was joined by Christine, the 1966 Batmobile, Ecto-1 and, a staple at Pittsburgh comic conventions, the “Back to the Future” Delorian time machine.
The Gearbox Union had a number of tables from which they were raffling off prizes donated by many of the merchants. They also had a game that encouraged con attendees to interact with the dealers, artists and guests. A fantastic idea. I didn’t get in on the action myself but it seemed to be propagating itself through the con fairly well. They also hosted the charity auction later in the day.
In addition to the artists and dealers there were gaming tables in addition to a video game tournament. At most cons I am used to seeing these things somewhat segregated, tucked out of sight where only the gamers can find them. Here they were right there out in the open. I don’t know how well doing it that way drew people in but I appreciate the intention. Or perhaps it was merely a necessity of the venue. I could also see where it could be an issue for the game players to have too many spectators crowding the space.
I had intended to spend more of my time watching the panels and presentations but, just as I do with other conventions, I was distracted by conversations and such and so missed out. Perhaps if I had joined in the Gearbox Union’s games I would have been prompted to interact more.
It took nearly two hours to work their way through the masquerade. Part of me wants to find some way to pair it down so that it isn’t so long for the spectators and participants. Two hours is a long time and one of the reasons I don’t participate. On the other hand, everyone who wanted to had a chance to be a part of it and, in so many ways, that’s what cosplay is all about.
The balance of the con is somewhat different for those used to things like Steel City Con and Pittsburgh Comicon. There are more artists, artisans and small press than there are more conventional dealers. And it seems to match well with the attendees. I had a conversation with Garrett Free, author and artist of “Arcadian Knights” and he said that at Sci-Fi Valley people stop to talk to him and actively look at his stuff. People who bought his first issue at the first con bought the next issues at the next con and have returned yet again to get his latest issues. When he goes back to other conventions, he will go as an attendee instead of as a dealer.
Several others described Sci-Fi Valley as their favorite con.
Normally, at this point I would feel compelled to go into the negatives of the convention, such as the inability of the venue to keep the temperature down, especially in the auditorium area, but the con has outgrown the Jaffa Shrine Center and will be at the Blair County Convention Center next year, rendering criticism of the current air conditioning situation somewhat moot.
The second year for the con had double the attendance of the first and the person I was talking to on Saturday had said that their Friday numbers for 2014 had been double their previous year. They are well on their way to becoming a strong regional convention.
Sci-Fi Valley Con is the little convention that did.