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You can rule Comic-Con -- without a badge

No convention center pass? No problem.

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This "Walking Dead" walker doesn't care whether you have a Comic-Con badge, she'll want to eat you all the same.

Mike Sorrentino/CNET

When I go to San Diego Comic-Con, I get to try video games before they come out, see movies while they're still getting made and attend exclusive parties where there are free drinks aplenty. Oh, and I was doing this long before I ever landed an official Comic-Con admission badge.

The entire downtown area of San Diego becomes Comic-Con, giving fans access to screenings, giveaways and outdoor experiences, often completely for free.

The secret: Just a little research easily gets you a packed list of plans that don't require you to ever have to set foot inside the San Diego Convention Center.

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A virtual reality experience based on the upcoming movie "It" is open to anyone.

Mike Sorrentino/CNET

Every year I start by browsing websites like Outside Comic-Con and the SDCC Unofficial Blog, both of which curate a list of events and parties.

Then to drill down a little further, I check the entertainment brands I follow to see how they plan to represent themselves at Comic-Con.

Want to pay a visit to the world of "Blade Runner 2049"? The immersive experience is ready for visitors regardless of whether they're wearing a badge. 

Nintendo regularly takes over a section of the San Diego Marriott Marquis and Marina Hotel, showcasing un- or newly released games like Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle and Splatoon 2. (We also got close to the SNES Classic.)

Nerdist's annual Conival event held this year at the Marriott Marquis and Marina includes its own panels, game demos and even free laser tag. 

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This Nintendo game isn't out yet, and you don't need a Comic-Con badge to play it.

Mike Sorrentino/CNET

Then there are the parties. Syfy is holding free fan parties that even include complimentary beer for adults. 

IGN took over The Tipsy Crow bar Thursday night for a party that included a DJ and a professional photographer. 

You're likely to find other free events too if you check geek-friendly social media accounts. (Marvel announced that its pop-up theater at a nearby mall was debuting Imax footage of the upcoming "Inhumans" series, just minutes before it screened. I ran over to catch it.)

Want to keep your plans spontaneous? Then just show up in San Diego and walk around the convention center. Without even trying, you can find plenty of outdoor events (often called "activations") that are vying for the attention of anyone passing by. Here's one put on by Netflix, for example.

This year Amazon has a lounge and Escape Room-style game for "The Tick" that rewards players with a customized shirt. (What's cool about the "The Tick"? We'll explain.)

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Amazon's "The Tick" experience includes taking a motion photo in front of a green screen.

Mike Sorrentino/CNET

"The Walking Dead" has an outdoor area called the Deadquarters, where you can swing Negan's bat, Lucille, in a batting cage; try out an app that puts zombies in our world like pocket monsters in Pokemon Go; and get creeped out by real growing walkers roaming around. 

Schick's Hydro Escape setup groups players together in a quest to solve a series of puzzles, ending with the creation of a robot hologram and free T-shirts for participants.

And while I couldn't stop by, I saw an area where fans can take photos on re-creations of sets from "Orange Is the New Black," "Game of Thrones" and "Luke Cage" and then receive a free meal based on the corresponding show. Similarly, here's a walkthrough of the Game of Thrones: Winter Is Here experience.

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My group solved a puzzle inside of Schick's Hydro Escape, opening a secret door.

Mike Sorrentino/CNET

It's basically an amazing, free theme park. But alas, that means lines are long. Really long. One year I waited two hours to race through an Assassin's Creed obstacle course. Another year, Yahoo was giving out free Subway sandwiches for the sixth season of "Community," which cost me 20 minutes of line time, instead of just $5 for lunch.

Also worth noting is that most of these free events are giant commercials. Nearly all of them hope you have so much fun that you'll tweet, Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat the experience to all your friends, spreading the name of the movie, TV show or company.

But at the same time, with Comic-Con badges being incredibly difficult to get, it's good to have other opportunities in San Diego that let anyone get closer to their favorite movies and shows.

Basically, once a year you can be a pop culture rock star in San Diego, whether you can get into Comic-Con or not.

Comic-Con 2017: Full coverage of the fantasy-fan freak-out.

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