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This past sunny and rainy Labor Day weekend (August 30-September 2, 2013) saw the 27th Dragon Con in Atlanta, GA. Dragon Con is one of the largest fandom conventions in the country, with this year’s claimed attendance at over 57,000. On its website, Dragon Con bills itself as “over 3,500 hours of non-stop programming, concerts, a film festival, the South’s largest costume contest, and the largest Art Show in all of fandom.” In addition to all of this, this is certainly true, Dragon Con also serves as a nexus point for all geek culture to commemorate the media and creativity that pulls us together, not to mention show just how hard we nerds can really party!

Despite being listed as four days, Dragon Con really is a five-day convention. Events and parties now start as early as Thursday night. Even with arriving as early as Friday afternoon as I did, I could tell I was missing so much of the event from my Facebook feed flooded with photos of friends and great costumes as I packed the night before.

This is a convention where earlier is always better. Events as seemingly esoteric as a magic show or a lesser-known comic series still quickly fill the room. If you’re not prompt enough, you won’t get in. While Dragon Con staff may not allow lines to form until a certain time before an event, it’s always smart to be mindful of the dozens or hundreds of others who also want a coveted seat at that highly-anticipated event.

With this schedule diligence comes sacrifices. There’s so much to do at Dragon Con, that it’s impossible to do everything you want. If you want to see William Shatner or John Barrowman give a Q&A, you sacrifice a couple/few hours lining up for the event and actually attending it. Perhaps you wanted to see both, but they have events around the same time. Perhaps you miss the dealer room hours, or another guest’s signing times in the Walk of Fame autograph room. Perhaps you miss an out-of-town friend you rarely see because your schedules never overlap. Perhaps you have to force yourself to break and find food before passing out. My personal schedule quickly became a list of mostly unfulfilled wishes.

But while this varies for some, the events are only one part of what makes Dragon Con fulfilling. For me, it’s the social experience. Waiting in line for an hour to attend an event is most worthwhile with a buddy in tow. Wandering through the crowded and convoluted maze of the dealer room would be unbearable if not for being with good friends to gush over some amazing product (such as the amazing gaming tables by GeekChic). Panel- and party-hopping with people leads to the best stories of adventures and escapades you’ll remember for years to come, or at least you wish you did.

I was once asked if there were a night spot where Dragon Con attendees congregated after events died down. The thing is that Dragon Con IS a night spot and a day spot. The two largest crowds you’re going to find all weekend are early Saturday morning at the parade, and late Saturday night in the Marriott lobbies. This convention only has a down time for a wee few hours around sunrise, mainly so they can close, clean, and restock the hotel bars.

Journeying to Dragon Con is a must at least once in the life for anyone outwardly geeky. From popular fandoms like comic books and renowned television series, to those niche like folk music and puppetry, everything considered “geeky” is represented with a large community of enthusiastic fans you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else.

Sure, there are larger conventions. San Diego Comic-Con still dwarfs Dragon Con in attendance, and SDCC’s Hollywood and mainstream impact are incomparable. That’s not what Dragon Con is about. This isn’t a place to feature next year’s summer blockbuster. This is where the fans go to celebrate this year’s, and last year’s, and all the year’s prior. Dragon Con is a celebration of the history and the culture of everything geeky, nerdy and weird. From film and television to computer hacking and internet culture. From role-playing games to skeptics and conspiracy theorists. From cartoons to science and robotics. If you ever felt insecure about your interests being considered too nerdy for the norm, here it IS the norm.

Few places can shut down entire city streets to parade geekery for all public to see and cheer. Few places are as accessible to the point of bar hopping with hobbits and dwarves, or sharing the restroom with your favorite television star. Few places will actually dedicate an entire ballroom to the puppetry of Fraggle Rock and fill it to capacity. Dragon Con does all this and more!
With all my praise about the cultural importance of Dragon Con for my fellow nerds, it’s not flawless. The crowding is a big issue that will only worsen as the convention continues to grow. Sky bridges between convention hotels became impassable through peak hours, leaving those in a hurry forced to traverse the distance *gasp* outside in the sun and rain. If you are disabled in your movement in any way, this will be a trial of patience and temper that will require a Herculean effort. Even adding more hotels will do little to alleviate the crowding pressure. Still, “being too popular” isn’t the worst problem in the world to have.

The crowd continued to bog down elevators throughout the weekend, with none more pressing than Monday morning check out. Given I had a cart with my luggage, but I found my wait time at 45 minutes to ride the elevator from my room to the lobby in the Marriott Marquis hotel. It would be nice to see Dragon Con or the hotels staffing elevators or the elevator halls to clear them out at top and bottom floors, as well as prioritizing the disabled. Unfortunately that would be a considerable staffing drain.

The new dealer room, now in the separate Americas Mart building, proved especially crowded and confusing with its labyrinth-like layout. However, with this being its first year in that new location, hopefully Dragon Con will take observations and feedback in consideration to improve the new dealer room layout in years to come.

Even with the growing crowds causing congestion, I still recommend you add yourself to that problem next year! If you want to attend the 2014 Dragon Con, which you should, you can already pre-register at http://store.DragonCon.org. Do so before September 15, and it will only cost you $65, a bargain compared to the $130 or more it will cost at the door.

Keep in mind, Dragon Con is an expensive proposition, from registration cost, hotel room, food, transportation, and everything you will be tempted to splurge on from various dealers, exhibitors, and guest autographs. You can be smart about it and save money. More importantly, the relationships you forge and strengthen and the experiences you’ll create and cherish will make it all worth it. I’ll return again next year, and I hope to see you there too!