On a gorgeous Indian-summer Saturday in Sacramento, a Disneyland-style line snaked through the third-floor ballroom of the city's convention center. Lined up inside the railings were men and women clutching paperwork.

About 1,500 people attended the health fair, and although not all were there to investigate insurance policies available through Covered California, the state's new health insurance purchasing exchange, the line of people doing that was long and sustained.

Covered California Executive Director Peter Lee looked at what he saw and pronounced it "incredible."

Daniel Zingale, senior vice president of the California Endowment, one of the event's sponsors, was somewhat less impressed. The lines were too long, he complained. "We have to do a better job of opening the door."

Five weeks into a new era of health-insurance purchasing in the United States, it is clear that California -- one of 14 states to establish its own exchange -- is faring better than those that, either by choice or out of protest to Obamacare, are requiring their residents to use the problem-plagued federal exchange.

Just how much better will become known on Thursday, when Covered California will release enrollment figures for October, the first month when people could begin to select policies.

Whatever those early numbers show, Lee and health-policy advocate Anthony Wright of the group Health Access say they have anticipated from the beginning that the highest demand would come later in the process, specifically during the first two weeks of December. To have coverage in place on Jan. 1, individuals and families must enroll by Dec. 15.

"There's no benefit to signing up on Oct. 1 instead of Dec. 15," Wright said. "That day will be like Black Friday. My advice is to sign up now, because Dec. 15 is going to be a madhouse."

Lee said every employee at Covered California's call centers has been scheduled to work on Saturday, Dec. 14, and Sunday, Dec. 15.

"We've always thought Nov. 15 through Dec. 15, those are the four weeks that are going to have the highest demand," he said. "People shouldn't wait until then, but they will."

For all the attention being devoted to the rollout of the new system, it is easy to forget that it is designed to accommodate a relatively small segment of the population -- the 20 percent who are uninsured and the 5 percent who are covered by policies purchased through the individual market. About half of Californians will continue to receive employer-based coverage, and about a quarter are covered either by Medi-Cal or Medicare.

Still, in California, small percentages translate into big numbers, making the challenges of this transition immense.

Zingale, who was former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's health policy adviser, notes that California is in better position than most of the rest of the country because for the most part the state has not been affected by political attempts to sabotage the law.

In recent weeks, however, actions by the insurance industry have added a new complication. About 1 million Californians with individual policies have been notified their policies will not be renewed next year.

Because two of those companies gave insufficient notice, Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones announced last week that Blue Shield has agreed to extend coverage through March 31 to 116,000 individuals whose policies it canceled, and on Tuesday announced an extension through Feb. 28 for 104,000 Californians whose individual policies were canceled by Anthem Blue Cross.

These cancellation notices have been sent even though all existing policies could have been legally extended through 2014. "It's an entirely avoidable problem," Jones said. "It's thrown a lot of Californians into disarray."

Wright acknowledges that some whose policies were canceled will now have to purchase higher-priced policies, perhaps with different networks of providers. But with the arrival of Covered California and the availability of subsidies to low- and middle-income consumers, he said, "In most cases, there's something better out there."

Health insurance is complicated, and although the purchasing exchange is designed to simplify insurance shopping, the transition to a new a system was always going to be a challenge.

It will likely be the case that Covered California's October enrollment numbers will fall short of what many health care reformers had hoped. But the biggest question is what the response will be during the first two weeks of December. Will it in fact resemble Black Friday?

If so, early shoppers such as those who stood on line on a splendid fall Saturday may turn out to have been the wise ones.