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It's possible to do Tampa Bay Comic Con on a budget. Here's how.

Luis Romero of Tampa has five Spider-Man suits and has made 25 different covers and inside panels out of $3 presentation boards. 
“I spent three years of research trying to find the perfect red and blue classic Spider-Man suit,” the 37-year-old said.
Luis Romero of Tampa has five Spider-Man suits and has made 25 different covers and inside panels out of $3 presentation boards. “I spent three years of research trying to find the perfect red and blue classic Spider-Man suit,” the 37-year-old said.
Published Jul. 20, 2017

One of the best parts about being a geek is going to conventions. Huge halls packed with cosplayers, celebrities, comic books, collectibles and a community of like-minded weirdos. It's paradise.

However, attending conventions can also make money disappear faster than Barry Allen after two cups of coffee. But as the Times' resident geek and comic con expert, I've assembled a list of helpful tips to getting your nerd on without spending money like Tony Stark.

Tampa Bay Comic Con returns to Tampa for its seventh year starting July 28, bringing stars from The Walking Dead, Star Trek, Batman and The Princess Bride. While Tampa Bay Comic Con is one of the more affordable conventions and kids get in free, adult tickets still range from $30 to $60. That's before thumbing through the hundreds of bins of comics and forking over $80 to get a photo with Val Kilmer.

Those who don't have a Star Wars T-shirt collection or attend midnight screenings of new Marvel movies might balk at the idea of spending that kind of money to meet another human being for a brief moment. But consider this: Some football fans spend thousands to follow their team and get the newest jerseys. Fashion obsessives fervently follow news out of the world's runways and splurge on shoes. Loving music can also cost quite a bit, especially if your favorite artists sell out arenas and charge $45 for a concert T-shirt. It's not just nerds who fork over the dough to feed their obsessions.

I'm not the only geek with advice for attending conventions. Others shared their experiences cosplaying on a budget, saving to splurge and making a Professor X-worthy itinerary.

Take note, nerds.

Any true nerd knows a trip to a convention can be catastrophic if schedules, photo ops, autographs and finances aren't coordinated ahead of the weekend.

Take it from Joel Owens, 24, of South Carolina, who recently splurged on a trip to Florida to meet Marvel creator Stan Lee. This wasn't the first time Owens had met Lee, but at MegaCon in May he filled his schedule with a Stan Lee Breakfast package, photo op and autograph.

Courtesy of Joel Owens

Joel Owens of South Carolina, dressed as Ant-Man, is pictured with Marvel creator Stan Lee.

"Including photo ops with other actors I bought, I'm guessing I easily spent a little over $1,000 this year," Owens said. "But I definitely planned ahead. I spent six months saving for it."

The same holds true for LeAnna Carrasco, a 31-year-old American Sign Language interpreter from Tampa. Carrasco highly recommends planning ahead if you want to meet celebrities. She wouldn't have been able to meet Tom Felton (Harry Potter) and Corin Nemec (Stargate SG-1) without saving for months and buying photo ops ahead of time.

How can anyone possibly obsess over just one thing? To be a savvy congoer, you might have to narrow your fandoms to just one (or, yeah, two).

Luis Romero, 37, of Tampa has perfected cosplaying as Spider-Man for four years. While he "can't sew to save his life," he uses his talents to craft Spidey suit adjustments and create stunning backdrops for his cosplay.

"I think about cosplay year-round," he said. "I spent three years of research trying to find the perfect red and blue classic Spider-Man suit."

So far, he has five Spider-Man suits and has made 25 different covers and inside panels out of $3 presentation boards. The backdrops can take two weeks to two months to create, he said, but bring to life covers and pages from The Amazing Spider-Man, Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars, The Flash, Daredevil, Deadpool and even Stranger Things.

His job as a chiropractic assistant has given him plenty of time to devote to being Spider-Man, he said. And, surprisingly, these intricate displays only look expensive. Romero said the most he spent so far was $150 to upgrade his Marvel Cinematic Universe suit to match the new Spider-Man: Homecoming movie.

It's safe to say Romero is Spidey-crazy. With his focus on the web slinger, he has been able to meet some of his favorite comic creators, including Dan Slott (The Amazing Spider-Man), Rob Liefeld (Deadpool), Mike Zeck (Secret Wars) and Humberto Ramos (Spectacular Spider-Man).

On the zombie spectrum, there's dad-daughter duo Greg and Jamie Woodrum of Clearwater. The two are seriously obsessed with The Walking Dead.

It started during the first season when Greg, 52, noticed the show was being filmed in Senoia, Ga. They took a long weekend to visit the quaint town and subsequently fell in love with it.

"It's been a Walking Dead thing and a daddy-daughter thing," he said.

They also ventured into convention territory, stacking their schedules with autographs and photo ops with almost all the cast. Jamie, 19, has photos with Lauren Cohan, Michael Rooker, Steven Yeun, Danai Gurira and even Norman Reedus. Jamie was so overwhelmed meeting Reedus, she almost passed out.

Courtesy of Greg Woodrum

Jamie Woodrum of Clearwater meets Norman Reedus of "The Walking Dead." She was so overwhelmed meeting Reedus, she almost passed out.

"He came across the table and hugged her and gave her chocolate," Greg said. "And I made sure to get the picture."

Greg spent thousands taking these trips with his daughter. To him, it has been worth it.

"Touring these sites and going to conventions has provided invaluable quality time with my daughter," he said. "We are able to have many conversations that maybe we wouldn't have had otherwise."

Cosplay, or dressing up like your favorite character, is vital to convention life. It can be as elaborate as a fully functioning Iron Man suit or as simple as a favorite Harry Potter T-shirt.

These women have mastered the art of cosplaying on a budget.

Librarian Hannah Ulloha, 29, of Eagle Lake in Polk County makes cosplay from scratch or by repurposing items from thrift stores. She and some friends recently dressed up as Warboys from Mad Max: Fury Road, making lances out of PVC pipes, soda cans, wires, screws and bolts. They bought cargo pants and tank tops from Goodwill and aged them with coffee, tea and paint.

Courtesy of Hannah Ulloha

Hannah Ulloha of Eagle Lake, second from left, poses with the rest of her "Wargirls" from Mad Max: Fury Road.

"Yeah, it would be easier to buy everything and have it in three weeks, and there's nothing wrong with that at all," she said. "But if you enjoy the build and have time and energy, you don't have to spend a lot of money to make things."

Raquel Guillen-Velez, 29, of St. Petersburg saves on costumes by picking her shots. She plans her cosplay around the busiest days at cons: Saturdays.

"That's the one day I will for sure cosplay because I will get to show off a costume I made," she said.

Guillen-Velez has created five different costumes from items found at thrift stores, online or pieces done by hand and has bought one whole — Chun-Li from Streetfighter. One of her creations is a "fem" Dragon Ball Z's Vegeta made with craft foam from Michael's.

Carrasco reused her wedding dress to be Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones. She's now planning to switch out the chest of dragon eggs for a baby dragon for the next con.

"Start figuring out what you would like to cosplay as at least a year in advance of the con," she said. "It's easier to take your time over the course of a year and buy a little at a time. If you wait until the last minute, it will be expensive."

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I'm going to chime in on this tip. I love making itineraries for events, and conventions are no different.

Both Stephen Solomon, co-owner of Tampa Bay Comic Con, and Andrew Moyes, vice president of FanExpo, the company that owns MegaCon Orlando and MegaCon Tampa, emphasized the use of their conventions' apps for planning.

"This is the first time we aren't using a printed program," Solomon said. "But everything you need to know is on the app — schedules, panels, contests, registration and a list of guests."

With apps, users can see updated times to meet celebs and their Q&A sessions, view a list of exhibitors and creators, find where the gaming rooms are and get maps of the convention. That way, you won't waste time and money doing things that aren't worth it.

Moyes has been a part of FanExpo for the past five years and has seen the pop culture convention scene grow exponentially. That growth is reflected in the guest lists, prices and the fans willing to invest in them.

"We are in the business of providing a fan experience that is priceless," he said. "But for us, it's the satisfaction of thousands of fans having those once-in-a-lifetime experiences."

This is the most important tip I and my fellow nerf herders can give you: Don't forget to have fun.

Owens spent quite a bit of money to meet Stan Lee again, but he never gets tired of hearing Lee talk at cons about the love letters he used to write to his wife or the first time Spider-Man got rejected.

"It goes beyond just being a geek," he said.

Romero loves showing off his Spider-Man suits and props to convention guests, and loves it even more when comic creators compliment him on his cover re-creations.

"There's no limit to what cosplay can be," he said. "Whatever you love, just do it."


Luis Romero has memorabilia aplenty at his Tampa home.

I've spent hundreds on traveling, shopping and meeting my favorite celebrities at conventions. I haven't cosplayed yet, but I've met Reedus, Graham McTavish, Evan Peters, Tom Payne, four actors from the Harry Potter film series and, most recently, Lee.

It can cost money, yeah. But there's nothing like walking into a convention hall full of thousands of fellow nerds and feeling at home. That's priceless.

Contact Chelsea Tatham at Follow @chelseatatham.

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