SALT LAKE CITY — Eight-year-old Adrian Paz usually has a smile on his face, but as he was presented Thursday with his specialized wheelchair costume for Salt Lake Comic Con, his grin grew even wider.
"Oh my gosh!" he shouted out as black cloth was pulled off the wheeled cart designed to fit around his wheelchair. "I love it!"
Adrian wheeled over to the "Jurassic Park"-themed costume, resembling a rugged jungle cart being pulled by a harnessed raptor, and ran his hand along the dinosaur's tail.
"This guy looks so real," he marveled.
Once the costume had been lowered over his wheelchair, Adrian grabbed the reins and beamed at the gathering crowd, assuring two young girls dressed as princesses, "You can pet him, I don't mind."
Adrian's parents, meanwhile, hung back, letting him soak up the attention.
"He had a really rough year this year. He was in and out of Primary Children's Hospital, and this year he has had some bully issues at school," said Chelsey Paz, Adrian's mother. "To see him literally light up like he did was a great feeling. I'm just speechless."
Adrian, of Draper, was born with spina bifida, being rushed away within hours of his birth for what would become a series of surgeries through his life, according to his mother. Growing up he has always been outgoing, she said, but being a child in a wheelchair in a sometimes unkind world takes a toll.
"I love seeing him have the confidence to command the crowd and seeing him be comfortable in his own skin in such a public setting," Paz said. "It's a great feeling because sometimes you get worried he's a little insecure being in the wheelchair, but he's the spotlight."
Ryan Weimer, one of the founders of the Oregon-based Magic Wheelchair organization, fought emotion as he explained why he pursued the idea.
Three of Weimer's five children were born with muscular dystrophy. When his youngest son asked for a pirate Halloween costume at age 3, he decided to incorporate the boy's motorized wheelchair, he explained, constructing a whole pirate ship for him to ride in.
The elaborate costume had an astonishing effect.
"There's this funky barrier around disabilities," Weimer said. "That was completely gone as he was out cruising around in his pirate ship. No one hesitated to come up and talk to him, and as a dad, that was a beautiful, beautiful experience."
Weimer realized that for other families like his, a wheelchair costume could have the same impact.
Magic Wheelchair partners with different design and building companies who donate time and materials to construct the costumes. The organization made a splash at San Diego Comic-Con in July, unveiling a set of Justice League themed costumes for children attending the event. And since then, word has continued to spread.
The Paz family learned about the program through social media posts about the Justice League chairs. They quickly went online, submitted an application for Adrian and crossed their fingers that the organization would respond in time for Salt Lake Comic Con.
Adrian was presented with his costume just minutes after Salt Lake Comic Con opened its doors for its fifth anniversary comic and pop culture event, happening through Saturday at the Salt Palace Convention Center. Once the rig was secure, Adrian took to the convention floor, sometimes only making it a few feet at a time before people stopped him asking for a picture.
The wheelchair costume was displayed during a kickoff press conference for the event Thursday morning, along with some other specialty items made for the convention: A life-size Wonder Woman sculpture made entirely of Lego bricks and a custom Wonder Woman-themed motorcycle.
Salt Lake Comic Con founders Dan Farr and Bryan Brandenburg opened with praise for the convention's dedicated volunteers, faithful fan base and community partners.
"People come up to Bryan and I at times and say, 'Thank you for putting on Salt Lake Comic Con,' and both of us feel like, well, we do part of it, but it's so much bigger than what we can do," Farr said. "It's because of all the effort of our partners, our friends in the community and the great support we have that we can do this."
Brandenburg heralded the convention's growth, becoming the best attended convention in the state and the largest first-year fan convention in North America, but emphasizing, "it's beyond the numbers at this point."
"What we're focusing on now is really to become the premier entertainment experience in the region, and we're doing that because there is so much support from the community," Brandenburg said.
Salt Lake Comic Con's fifth major show features more than 60 celebrity guests, panels of authors and artists, and huge amounts of geeky merchandise. Top stars appearing at the event include Dick Van Dyke, John and Joan Cusack, Elijah Wood, Val Kilmer, Christopher Lloyd, Stephen Amell, Wil Wheaton and Michael Rooker.