Saturday and Sunday (June 27-28) saw an invasion of International Drive by throngs of zombies, hunters, and everything in-between when the famed Walker Stalker Convention made its way to Orlando. I was fortunate enough to attend with both media and vendor passes, allowing me a broad perspective on the entire intricate process of the event from start to finish. This was my first experience with a celebrity-based convention, and I learned a lot along the way. I also had some unforgettable encounters during my weekend. Before this experience, I wasn’t entirely sold on “con-mania”. I wasn’t sure if it was worth it, and I had no real idea of what to expect. After maximizing my visit to Walker Stalker Con, I’ve finally got something real to form an opinion on. Since I had trouble finding good, in-depth, detailed convention experience reviews online, I have a goal to make this one more useful and complete than those I discovered. In other words… get comfortable!
My convention experience started a day before the event. I had badges to pick up, and I was assisting with booth set up for CSI: The Experience. This was a nice opportunity to get the lay of the land, and a sneak peek. I made mental notes of “battle plans” – who was where, how long were line queues, etc. I immediately noticed that Norman Reedus has a queue that was probably double the size of the largest I had seen on the floor. No surprise; widely-known convention rule #1 – if Norman Reedus is there, line up early, and plan to wait.
This was my primary “media day”, and it was jam-packed with panels and pre-arranged mini-interviews. You really do have to plan ahead for every aspect of your convention experience. Check floor maps and schedules. It is a strategy-dependent event, if you have a lot you wish to accomplish. I brought my son with me, as he is not only a fan of The Walking Dead, but also a stellar photographer, and one of my frequent collaborators on opinions, covering the teen perspective.
Before we even arrived at the Orange County Convention Center, we discussed rule #1 and decided to make a Reedus bee-line. VIP entry was set for 9:00AM. We arrived at 8:30, and there was a massive gathering of people already in place. Since we had access a few minutes before the crowd, we managed to have first in (VIP) line privileges for Norman Reedus. We quickly figured out the line-order hierarchy: Gold & Platinum VIP gets first-access, Celebrity VIP gets second order, followed by General VIP (where media access landed) and then General Access. Line-up began at 9:00AM, with posted signing start time being 9:00AM as well. From the sounds of the cheers, celebrities started arriving at their booths nearby a little before 10:00AM. I was pleasantly surprised that, even with a large crowd assembled around us, there was no chaos or mob-mentality. The convention volunteers even thanked us for being so calm and collected. Speaking of the volunteers – they really were exceptional at this particular location. Tasha was a stand-out. She engaged us in conversation and helped to keep the group patient, and even amused. Throughout the rest of the day, we encountered a lot of volunteers that seemed to be confused and ill-informed, but this particular crew at Norman’s booth were notably on-target.
I’ve seen many questions about pricing at celebrity conventions. This is a point that always confused me as well – how much is what, and what’s included? You have tiered entry levels, as mentioned above, and each results in different access and privileges. Naturally, these vary by convention. Another thing that varies is what is allowed by the celebrity guests. At Walker Stalker Con, even with media access, you have to get special permissions for certain things. Each guest sets their own parameters for interactions, pricing, and restrictions. For example – Norman Reedus was charging $80 per autograph. As far as photos – we could take pictures from the line, but NOT at the table. We had to put our phones and cameras away as we approached the autograph table, so they do enforce these rules. I was fortunate enough to get a few respectable shots while in line.
For the record, Norman really is as wonderful as we all expect him to be. In the minute we had to interact with him, he managed to display a sincere appreciation for our respect for his work. An instantly-convincing class act, indeed. It didn’t hurt that he made the line wait more bearable with sporadic silly-string attacks. His silly-string moments are legendary. Definitely a perfect way to start the day.
From here, we decided to stroll around, taking advantage of shorter lines as we found them. Thankfully, none of the lines seemed daunting… not after what we had just left behind, especially! We made frequent stops, and within two hours, we had checked off a reasonable number of the guests we most wanted to connect with. We did encounter wildly different policies regarding guest interactions and allowances. Most allowed photos from beyond the queue lines (I greatly appreciate my zoom lens now), some allowed them anywhere before the table, and a few allowed none at all without payment. I’m a stickler for the rules, so I didn’t bother challenging any prohibitions. Most guests were extremely humble and courteous. I went out of my way to be respectful of their schedules and lines, but most of the guests we approached volunteered to chat with me for a moment off-camera.
A few of my most notable guest observations and interactions:
Josh McDermitt (Eugene-TWD) may have been one of the most engaging celebrities I have ever encountered. We spent about five minutes with him, and he was simply a blast. He offered us candy, helped us remove lingering silly string, and entertained a few theories regarding his character on the show. Although he didn’t give anything away verbally, he seemed quite amused by our adamant belief that Eugene is already absent from filming. At this point, my son had decided to pursue his hunches further with other guests.
Andrew J. West (Gareth-TWD) was completely generous and accommodating. Nothing like the ruthless cannibal we loved to hate, but every bit as mild-mannered as the kindly-welcoming Terminus host we were initially introduced to.
Ross Marquand (Aaron-TWD) showed sincere dedication, arriving at the convention after Lasik surgery, against his doctor’s orders. He was the second guest that we chose to throw some theories at. He looked legitimately awed when we outlined our reasons for believing that Eugene would be the season’s first casualty. While he seemed thoughtful about our perspective, he informed us that at this point in filming, no major characters had been killed off. There’s always the possibility that he was trying to throw us off, but if I were to guess, I’d say he was being honest.
Greg Nicotero (Executive Producer-TWD) is positively a legend, and a true hero to any fan of the show. This was our final meet and greet of the day, because there’s just no way to top that. He promptly offered us hugs, and since my son was on a roll, this is the ultimate person to ponder outcomes with. We have this idea after seeing Greg Nicotero discussing the show on many occasions… he won’t spill the beans, but he is such an expressive person that you can sometimes read into the looks that cross his face. I watched his face as my son “interrogated” him, and I couldn’t tell who was enjoying the exchange more. I’m not sure that we cracked a spoiler, but my son seems to think he received a confirmation of something dreadful. Time will tell!
IronE Singleton (T-Dog-TWD) and I had been attempting to connect the entire week of the convention, but every attempt seemed thwarted by circumstance. Although we never got the one-on-one I had hoped for, we did get a chance to meet after his appearance on “The Originals” panel. IronE is an exceptionally insightful and motivated personality with a great deal of talent extending well beyond his post-apocalyptic appearance. His famous one-man performance, “Blindsided by the Walking Dead” was a wonderful after-hours addition, separately-priced from the convention. This is an inspirational, auto-biographical performance in which IronE “channels” 20 different people who had a direct impact on his life and accomplishments. Catch this performance whenever you have the opportunity!
Speaking of panels… you want to do this! If you’ve ever seen an episode of The Talking Dead, it’s much the same. You have a stage set (in this case, a boxcar ala Terminus) prepared for hosts and guests. Rows of audience seating with well-positioned microphones allow attendees to view the “talk show”, and even pose the opportunity to ask a question of the guests. The first panel we attended featured Jeryl Prescott (Jacqui), Emma Bell (Amy), and IronE Singleton (T-Dog) under the theme of “The Originals”. They discussed their experience during the rise of The Walking Dead, and gave a wealth of opinion and insight on their characters, their exits, and how they’d measure up in a real-life apocalyptic scenario.
Walker Stalker, while focused on The Walking Dead, is not exclusive solely to one show. The convention also brought in guests from Gotham, Vampire Diaries, Lost, Breaking Bad, and more. The Breaking Bad panel, featuring Giancarlo Esposito (Gus) and RJ Mitte (Walt Jr./Flynn) was another highlight we weren’t about to miss. Giancarlo and RJ shared many deep analytical opinions on the show and the overall plot-line, including some pseudo-psychological perspectives on Walter White. Naturally, RJ was questioned on the topic of breakfast. With all the emphasis on Walt Jr.’s cereal intake on the show, RJ laughingly explained that he rarely even partakes in the meal himself. He went from comedic on this topic to serious in his views on disabilities and challenges. Giancarlo detailed his goals and expectations in portraying Gus, explaining how difficult it was for him to be such a flat, un-animated character. By his own nature, Giancarlo is much different, but he wanted Gus to be that unassuming, calm character – the kind that chills you by never showing a crack in the facade or a “tell”. To the delight of the audience, he also revealed that he would be thrilled at the chance to resurrect his character for the Breaking Bad prequel-esque series, Better Call Saul. RJ gave a lengthy response to a fan question, elaborating on exactly how Walter White was not a good guy, and the detriment his family faced. After the panel, I met up with RJ and asked him to elaborate on that with a flip-side view. Another stand-out among the guests. RJ went out of his way to be extremely welcoming to each and every one of his fans.
Following our meetup with RJ, we returned to the staging area for the much-anticipated Lost panel! What a glorious collection of some of the show’s brightest stars! The panel included Harold Perrineau (Michael), Elizabeth Mitchell (Juliet), Henry Ian Cusick (Desmond), Mira Furlan (Danielle), and Nestor Carbonell (Richard). There was a lot of talk about the show’s wandering plots, and of course – the infamous ending to the series. When asked if they still remembered the “numbers”, it was no surprise to discover that the one cast member still able to recite the entire string was Ian Cusick. Everyone seemed to love that demonstration. The nostalgia was heart-warming and the varied opinions among the cast members was thought-provoking. Following the panel, we spoke briefly with Harold Perrineau. While I was always a huge fan of Michael, our discussion heavily centered on Harold’s Sons of Anarchy character, Damon Pope. If ever there was a vile villain – Pope was IT. He gave that signature Harold Perrineau laugh when I commented that this character really “burned me up”. If you’ve seen the show, you know why this was a funny (albeit unplanned) choice of words. A shiver just went down my spine again, just thinking of it. Gotta love him – he has portrayed so many very different characters, and he always gets it spot-on!
And while we’re on the topic of men with many faces, arguably the man with the most impressive list of accomplishments amongst the guests in attendance was Jeff Kober. Not only did he have very memorable roles in The Walking Dead and Sons of Anarchy, that’s merely the most recent in his decades of performance credits. I first discovered Jeff in the movie Out of Bounds with Anthony Michael-Hall (1986). He portrayed the smooth antagonist Roy Gaddis, and that performance really caught my attention. Jeff’s resume includes drama, sci-fi, comedy, thriller, and western genres in both film and TV. He has appeared in just about every show with any level of modern significance, including: The X-Files, Charmed, Star Trek, Law & Order, Criminal Minds, 24, Supernatural, CSI, and NCIS. Most of us got tired just reading that. I had to narrow down my question window, or I would have had to corner him for one full day, but Jeff agreed to chat with me about his recent stints on Sons of Anarchy and The Walking Dead, where he played two wildly different characters. He also filled me in on what he’s been up to since these roles wrapped.
We had one more celebrity encounter to make happen. Prior to the event, I connected with Jose Pablo Cantillo (Caesar Martinez-TWD and Hector Salazar-SOA). This convention was fast becoming a mini Sons of Anarchy reunion, and nothing could have pleased me more. Jose had caught my attention with his current project and Kickstarter campaign to fund it – Free Me: The Game. This was our topic of choice today, as he invited me to play a quick round of it with him. This really is a unique and attractive concept. In the heavy modern climate, Free Me: The Game is the sort of thing that helps to lighten it up, even though the inspirations behind the game bring to light a serious issue to ponder… social media consumption. Free Me: The Game is not as easy to explain as it is to demonstrate, so have a look…
The Walker Stalker fun was not quite over for me just yet. After the conclusion of the convention day, Moshi Moshi Productions hosted Necrosis, a post-apocalyptic shindig, at nearby Rosen Plaza’s Club 39. This party was 21 and up only, so my sidekick retired for the evening, and I set out on my own.
Not only was Club 39 and the poolside overflow a uniquely alluring setting for the event, but Moshi Moshi absolutely knows how to theme a party!
Interior lighting, decor, and sound were top-notch. “Zombies” served drinks and shuffled throughout the party area, always in character, and lending performance to the atmosphere. Think “zombie nightclub”, and you’ll grasp the concept. Fun!!
Poolside, there were vendors offering face painting, photo booths, themed snacks, and an oxygen bar. A handful of Walker Stalker Con celebrity guests even made appearances to mingle with the guests. Although it did get pretty crowded, it still maintained the vibe of an exclusive, intimate party.
My Sunday was reserved primarily for vendor duty at the CSI booth. We were well-covered in staff, so I was able to break away from time to time to do a little more exploring. Since I had already connected with most of my must-see guests, I decided to devote this day primarily to vendors, with a little cosplay and panels thrown in for good measure.
The first panel of the day featured Kyla Kennedy (Mika) and Brighton Sharbino (Lizzie). I didn’t really have the time to sit in on the day’s panels, but I did manage to snag a few pictures in passing.
Melissa Ponzio (Karen) and Chad L. Coleman (Tyreese) appeared to have a lively discussion going on during their appearance. I did catch Melissa answering one fan query as to whether she’d be as forgiving toward Carol as Tyreese was if their roles had been reversed in The Walking Dead. Without hesitation, she enthusiastically said “NO”.
Hands-down, the most popular panel of the weekend was the reunion of Hershel and The Governor (Scott Wilson and David Morrissey, respectively). I was immeasurably disappointed that I couldn’t stick around for this one.
One thing I thoroughly enjoyed during my Walker Stalker Con experience was the supremely inventive cosplay! I didn’t manage to capture nearly enough examples to demonstrate the talent of so many convention guests, but there were some startlingly remarkable doppelgangers in attendance. Much like the convention itself, this wasn’t limited to just characters from The Walking Dead…
By far, there was one look-alike that absolutely took the cake – Cecil “Rick” Grimes. The only word that does him justice is WOW. Come to discover, Cecil was lending his appearance to help promote Lakeland Zombie Fest. With a photo op like this, they certainly commanded MY attention! This event takes place in October, and I highly recommend you check this one out.
Of course, I had to pay a visit to my friends at Medieval Times. They had a slew of knights, ladies, and even The Falconer on-hand, along with discount admissions. This one is another of my favorite recommendations locally.
Not all vendors were locals, of course. Our neighboring vendors were the Somerhalders from Mississippi representing the unique, rustic items from Built of Barnwood. They had original TWD photos, and many themed items on charming barnwood panels.
Of course, our CSI booth was phenomenal. We sold CSI themed merchandise, event-specific zombie goodies, and we had many guests clamoring to spin our “Wheel of Murder”, awarding free admission to CSI: The Experience for correct answers to serial killer-themed challenges.
One vendor brought the attraction with them in the form of “Zombie Zone”, a shooting range with zombie-esque targets. For $10, you received 100 shots. The distance of the shot was imposing. This was all set up within a bounce house of sorts, minus the bouncing floor.
Best tip: aim for the brain (regardless of where it actually is on the target)!
There was a wealth of zombie-oriented merchandise, and horror memorabilia in general. Many vendors had masks, prosthetics, and special effects goodies. The look and feel of these items were pro quality all-around, but my personal favorite was The Dead Body Store.
Our other neighbors from Chiroptera had some disturbingly realistic offerings as well.
Missing Finger Productions had a diverse collection of skulls, busts/plaques, and more. Very reasonable prices as well, especially when you consider the urge of many to raise prices at such events!
Fan-themed lighting was actually well-represented overall! Ransom Designs boasted clever lighting fixtures, made from recycled products. Green and cleaver – ya got me!
Federation Comics quite possibly had the single most complete collection of amazing items and memorabilia from The Walking Dead, and specifically Daryl Dixon. Manager Lynne Cabral was an eye-catching representative as well – always a nice touch to stand out!!
There were quite a few vendors selling handmade and/or personalized items. Creepy and Cute Shop was the most tempting to me. They make these dolls (aptly named, don’t you think?) in roughly 4-5 hours for the least detailed, and the sky’s the limit from there. They can even design custom dolls from a photo, duplicating clothing, accessories, and all other aspects of the subject’s personal appearance.
Come to think of it, there were really a large number of creepy dolls among the vendor tables. Haunted Porcelain put a new spin on some Disney favorites, and this naturally made me take pause.
Stitched from the Crypt also put a dastardly touch on childhood innocence with their eerily adorable plushes and bottle-cap charms.
The official Walker Stalker merchandise tables were a must as well! High-quality, wide variety of items to commemorate such a memorable weekend! Very fairly priced, I might add.
An info table was also setup providing details on the recently-announced Walker Stalker Con Cruise! This 3 day excursion runs from Miami to Nassau, Bahamas, and back – scheduled for January 15-18. Personally, I can’t think of anything cooler than that (made even more inviting because it’s a week before my birthday). If you have been looking for an excuse to take a cruise, you’ll never have a better reason. Catch all the latest information here! I’m not feeling too optimistic about my chances for joining the cruise, but I will undoubtedly catch the next Orlando-based convention. Walker Stalker Con really gets around. With global events annually, chances are you can get to one with minimal effort. Make this a priority. You can view the full list of U.S. cities visited, as well as Brazil and London here to begin planning your own visit.
My top tips:
Always remember – Reedus first, and be prepared to be “silly stringed”.
Have your post-Reedus strategy planned out in advance – schedules and floor maps!
Follow photo rules. No “capture” is worth making an ass of yourself. Be respectful – to guests and fellow attendees!
Start saving well in advance. To maximize this experience, you’ll want plenty of cash on-hand. Autographs cost money – photographs cost money. If you’re happy just saying “hi”, most guests welcome you for free. The vast array of unique merchandise and collectibles are beyond tempting.
Panels are a great way to relax and take a seat for a while and enjoy a show. If there’s something you’ve been dying to ask your favorite character, this is an opportunity. Be advised – AMC is notoriously protective of access to current cast of The Walking Dead. Much like at this event, they are often unable to speak to media or appear on panels. This is a contractual matter, and it serves no purpose to beg them or complain.
Wear comfortable shoes. I look better in my platform boots too, but I would have been crawling out of there on face by the end of the first day if I tried that. How some of the cosplayers manage a full day in some of those shoes, I’ll never understand. Kudos and respect to them, no doubt!
At the end of the event, I felt relieved to get off my feet, but sad to see it all come to an end. This was such an extraordinary experience. As a fan, and a longtime professional supporter of music and television entertainment, I had the time of my life compiled into a glorious cascade of beautiful memories. As a mom to a next-gen fan, I can safely say that my son feels the same way. I have a great time, and I get to be mother-of-the-year? Yes, please! I call that an all-around win. Many thumbs-up to the Walker Stalker Con team for a well-coordinated event of epic proportions. See ya in 2016!