Even a week after, I’m still sore and recovering from the exhaustingly fun and massive geek fest that is Dragon Con.
Dragon Con is a four-day science fiction and fantasy convention that takes over Atlanta, GA every Labor Day weekend. Over 60,000 unabashed fans fill five hotels, a mall, and the streets of Atlanta to celebrate their favorite fandoms. Everything from big-budget blockbusters, fervently followed television shows, spectacular costumes, comics, cartoons, mad science, fantasy literature, gaming, and more is represented. Four days of crowded panels and celebrity signings. Four nights of partying with some of the craziest and most fun people you’re ever meet. Dragon Con is nerd Mardi Gras, even with its own parade, and it’s an unparalleled gala for anyone inclined towards geekdom.
While Dragon Con says it’s a four-day convention, Friday through Labor Day Monday, it really starts on Thursday, or even as early as Wednesday night when several are already onsite and kicking off the local bars’ very profitable weekend. Thursday night even has official convention programming, with a few of Dragon Con’s content tracks hosting meet and greets to get their attendees pumped for the oncoming weekend.
I’m constantly surprised at the draw that Dragon Con has on fandom. Even with other massive events with their own star power on the same weekend – PAX in Seattle and Fan Expo Canada in Toronto – Dragon Con continues to pull in over 60,000 people to take over Atlanta for its weekend. That’s not even including all the badgeless looky-loos checking out the costumes, particularly during the Saturday-morning Dragon Con Parade (now online on DragonConTV’s YouTube account) that carves through the streets of downtown Atlanta like a Stormtrooper-themed hot knife through butter.
Speaking of which, this year was the first I actually attended the parade, and it was indeed a sight to behold. Early Saturday morning – an hour before the first procession began – thousands of Dragon Con attendees and general Atlanta residents lined the sidewalks. Everyone waited under the increasingly hot sun to see colorful costumes, decked-out vehicles, amazing constructions, and exciting performances. I was drenched in sweat with just a tee shirt and jeans. I don’t even want to know how many gallons of sweat were lost by those marchers in full-body costumes of Chewbaccas, Power Rangers, knight armors, and dinosaurs, just to name a few.
As impressive as the people were, the vehicles often stole the show. Old school Batmobile, the Mach 5, a little go-kart version of Herbie the Love Bug, and a fleet of Ghostbuster vehicles with the iconic Ecto-1 and fan-created Ectos with their own numbers rolled down the streets with their costumed compatriots.
The most striking aspect of the parade from my view was the parade walkers’ interactions with kids on the sidelines. A bunch of children sat in front of me, and costume after costume stopped for high fives and photo op with the children. Even in the parade, children participated. One little boy was dressed up in a sharp black suit during a Men in Black procession. A small toddler had fallen asleep in an Ecto-1 themed Little Tykes Cozy Coupe. Dragon Con is typically a very adult-oriented event, particularly in the evening hours, but it’s heartwarming to see kids being able to get involved too.
Speaking of firsts, this year was also the first I decided to immerse myself in Dragon Con’s gaming content, particularly since it’s the first Dragon Con since the release of the newest edition of Dungeons & Dragons. I honestly expected more of an official presence from D & D’s parent company, Wizards of the Coast, but their concentration was at the Seattle-based PAX event (which is actually closer to their headquarters) instead of the event that actually has “dragon” in the name.
I did get to play a game of D&D though, and it was a blast with a witty dungeon master (an actual volunteer staff position with the convention) and a great group to play with. Dragon Con dedicates a lot of space to table top gaming, be it board games or card games or role-playing games of a wide variety. Their video gaming, in contrast, surprisingly doesn’t get the same attention or space. Possibly because there’s no more space to give them with their current layout. However they did have huge cockpit arcade gaming units for a giant robot combat game, so there’s some video game cred. Just be ready to shell out some cash if you feel like playing. That robot combat game is $7 per round. Joining a role-playing game like D & D or Shadowrun costs a $3 ticket. Even checking out board games for rent is $5 for the whole weekend. Honestly not entirely unreasonable, but if you’re not expecting it, you could be in for quite the surprise.
This year most exemplified Dragon Con’s largest problem: it’s too damn big for its space. That’s saying something, considering how much space it actually takes up, but so many people still crowd convention floors and rooms that getting to see anything can be very difficult. Several events were completely filled to capacity simply with the line waiting outside over a half hour early, usually even earlier. Even events run by close friends of mine were full to the point that Dragon Con public safety staff turned me away due to fire code regulations. It sucks, but fire codes and people’s safety are not something to mess with.
With more and more people crowding the five hotels and mall that make up Dragon Con, I had moments of doubt about my wanting to continue to attend. All too often, wading through the crowds of the Marriott Marquis or traversing through the bodies that were piled into the sky bridges connecting hotels became impossible. If you’re afraid of crowds or tight spaces, Dragon Con will surely test your limits.
After a while though, you learn some tips and tricks to save time, deal with the crowds, and get around quickly.
One: Plan to be at whatever event you want to attend at least an hour early, and don’t plan a back-to-back schedule. You won’t be able to go simply from one event right into another. Just plan that you’ll have to wait in line for a while. It’s a great time to strike up a conversation with your like-minded compatriots or pick up some street passes on your Nintendo 3DS.
Two: Avoid the Marriott Marquis if you need to go anywhere not in that building. The Marriott Marquis is the focal point of Dragon Con, with three floors of common space that branch off into some of the largest ballrooms of the convention and plenty of bars and food options. It’s a fantastic hotel. All day, it’s crowded with people trying to get places, cosplayers looking to show off their costumes, and photographers willing to oblige. At night, it’s party central. It’s a lot of fun, but if crowds are a problem for you or if you’re in a hurry, go around it.
Three: Research your hotel’s checking out policies and checking luggage if you need it. Monday is the last day of the con, but it’s still a busy day. Checking out and dealing with your luggage will take a large chunk out of your day. If your hotel can hold your luggage for you, that’ll save you some hassle.
Four: Take a break. It’s ok to have hours of your day with nothing planned. Stay in your room. Eat. Nap. If you’re in one of the Dragon Con host hotels, watch the DragonConTV channel on the hotel television and catch up on events you missed or some hilarious skits.
Five: Shop on Monday. I didn’t even attempt the dealer area of Dragon Con until the final day of the show. For one, with so many people checking out or already leaving, it helps alleviate the crowds. In addition to that though, you can find dealers cutting deals, simply trying to lessen the load they have to take home. I got pretty lucky with a bunch of extra dice from the Chessex booth, thanks to waiting until the last hour to buy anything. Be careful though, because you do run the risk of not finding as many items of interest waiting that long.
There are even more great secrets to mitigate the masses and streamline your Dragon Con experience, but if I told you them all, it would make it harder for me! Despite all that crowding in what could easily be a high stress environment, Dragon Con staff and attendees are some of the nicest I’ve ever met, definitely in a convention setting. I was constantly shocked leaving rooms when Dragon Con door attendants told me all weekend long to have a nice day with a genuine smile. Even on the final day, there was a pep to several staffers that was disarmingly charming. And the attendees themselves are by and large courteous and helpful anytime you have a question and problem.
Dragon Con is a herculean effort to attend. It takes dedication to making the most out of your time. You have to accept that you probably won’t get to do or see everything you want to, but that’s ok. There’s so much going on that you’ll almost always accidentally have a great time regardless of everything else. It’s also really expensive, with all four days costing well over a hundred dollars at the door.
If you want to attend the next Dragon Con – September 4 – 7, 2015 – you can already pre-register at http://store.DragonCon.org. Do so before September 15 for only $75.
Comic writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, currently of Marvel’s Captain Marvel and Image’s Pretty Deadly, said of Dragon Con in the Carol Corps panel that “San Diego [Comic Con] is the con you go to for spoilers, and Dragon Con is the con you go to for secrets.” She was referring to how creators are more willing to tell secrets about their stories in this more close-knit and friendly environment, as opposed to the big, showy reveals that companies announce at Comic Con. I think it shows something beyond that though. Dragon Con is the con you go to party at. It’s where you go to haphazardly end up in the same bar as a MythBusters star or the director of the summer’s largest blockbuster, and instead of hounding them, you thank them, exchange some quick words, and move on. Dragon Con is about that close-knit interaction amongst its attendees, an intimate feel that’s oddly both in spite of its size and because of it.
That’s why Dragon Con continues to be worth it for me. I have experiences that I cannot have anywhere else. I see so many friends that I don’t the rest of the year, and I meet new people I never would have otherwise. Even on Twitter, I’m having conversations with complete strangers because of things that happen at Dragon Con. It’s crowded, noisy, stressful, overwhelming, and I look forward to doing it all over again next year!