SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake Comic Con packed in fans to close out the state's annual comic and pop culture gathering Saturday, a larger and smoother-run version of the event that burst onto the scene five years ago.
With about an hour left in the day, Dan Farr, Salt Lake Comic Con founder and show producer, said it appeared attendance may be just above previous installments of the homegrown geek celebration, which has drawn an estimated 120,000 people to the Salt Palace Convention Center in the past.
As comic con celebrated its fifth anniversary, Farr said the event is reaching an ideal size as organizers work to balance the "ecosystem" within it.
"For the most part we're pretty much the right size for the attendance versus the number of celebrities we have versus the number of vendors," Farr said. "The thing we always need to watch is keeping a balance of all of those things."
Among the celebrity highlights for this year's convention were Elijah Wood, who starred as Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings movie franchise, and cinema icon Dick Van Dyke.
Fans put into a lottery for seats to Wood's panel, which was filled to capacity Saturday as the actor shared behind-the-scenes memories from making "Lord of the Rings" and answered questions from fans. When one young fan asked how he had connected with his character, Wood likened taking on the role from J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved fantasy novels to the responsibility Frodo bore as he carried the "one ring" to be destroyed in the story.
For Farr, moderating Van Dyke's panel appearance Friday — after the 91-year-old actor initially announced he would only have the energy to sign autographs, then mustered his strength and rescheduled his events at the last minute — will be a favorite memory.
"I've wanted to have him come to the show for so long and give fans the opportunity to meet him," said Farr, who met Van Dyke 20 years ago while working on a children's book.
With each event, Farr said, organizers have shifted the layout of the vendor floor and space for panels and attractions around the convention center. And as the halls filled up, Farr was pleased to see traffic moving smoothly throughout.
The ticketing system has greatly developed as well, he said, and attendees he talked to praised the organization around the photo op staging area.
"All of that has indicated that the show is running much smoother than we have ever done it before. But we continue to learn, so there's always room for improvement," Farr assured.
Much of that organization comes through the staff and volunteers, who now have several years of experience under their belts, Farr noted, praising their ability to manage challenges that come up during the event and provide individual attention to attendees who may have an issue.
And with five years behind them, Salt Lake Comic Con's fans are also as committed as ever, with many who have attended from the beginning turning out for what has become a beloved nerdy tradition.
Josh Miner, of Salt Lake City, has attended every comic con and FanX convention since the event's inception in 2013. Wandering through the Salt Palace Saturday to meet up with friends, he described some of the "evolution" he has seen over time.
"Most of the people who I know come regularly," Miner said. "They get better and better every year about crowd control, line control. The first couple (of events) they had lines around the block trying to get in, and they've fixed most of those issues."
Through the years, Miner has perfected his comic con routine, learning to choose which panels and celebrity appearances he wants to attend and scheduling laps around the vendor floor with friends in between.
While he still sees ways the event could grow and improve, he praised Farr and Bryan Brandenburg, Salt Lake Comic Con co-founder and chief marketing officer, for making comic con a part of Salt Lake City and Utah.
"For a city our size, it's not necessarily normal to get something that has grown as big as it has or to be able to draw the talent and the celebrities that they have," Miners said.
Others, like Cara Baker, of Springville, and her children — Kaia Lowe, 15, and Carter Lowe, who is about to turn 13 — have made Salt Lake Comic Con a family affair. The family comes to the event each fall to celebrate the childrens' birthdays, and if the kids are getting good grades, they even get a day off school to do it.
Kaia and Carter said their favorite part of coming each year is seeing the elaborate cosplay that other attendees prepare, and taking in everything as a family.
"I like seeing what people can make with their creativity," said Carter, sporting a blue cape over his jeans and T-shirt. "Like, there was a guy in here earlier and he had a full-on suit from Iron Man, and it was completely working. Like, he could lift and close the mask."Comment on this story
Those who saw Cara Baker may not have initially realized what her costume, with flourescent leggings and a sleeveless gray workout jacket, was meant to be.
Baker was one of 40 people who dressed up in the outfit meant to match a 2013 photo of "Chuck" star Zachary Levi, who was making his second appearance at a Salt Lake Comic Con event. As Levi's panel was beginning Saturday morning, the group marched out on stage to surprise him and snap a photo.
"That's why I do comic con, you just never know what could happen," Baker said.