[[>This is a repost of material I wrote for another geek website that I’m no longer affiliated with. Per the agreement made with them for my creation of content of material for their site, enough time has passed for me to republish it here on my own blog. I wrote for this for Dragon Con 2014, but, with a few tweaks, it remains just as true this year.<]]
It’s that time of year again. We’ve endured the winter’s snow, ice, and traffic nightmares, we’ve survived the Spring’s annual blessing of yellow rivers that drift lazily through the air, coating our homes, cars, and lungs with a carpet of pollen, and now we’ve finally reached the hot, sauna days of summer. And, if you listen carefully, you can hear the anguished cries of desperation as thousands of cosplayers throughout the land clutch their latest project to their chests and whimper, “I don’t have enough time. It’s less than 60 days away!” This can only mean one thing: Dragon Con is upon us once again. What’s that you’re saying there in the back? You don’t know what a Dragon Con is? And you there, you in the Red vs. Blue shirt. You say that you haven’t been in quite a few years now? Oh, well… Let’s sit and talk for a spell then.
Dragon Con is, in the most general of terms, a giant, four day long multi-media fandom event that takes place every Labor Day weekend in Atlanta, Georgia. Some people affectionately refer to it as Nerdy Gras, others call it Woodstock for Geeks, and some simply call it their annual visit with friends and family at their four day home away from home. But no matter what you call it, it’s been a growing attraction that’s been grabbing the hearts and minds of geeks all over the world since its humble beginnings in 1987, eventually growing into the largest event of its kind in the Southeast. In 2014, counting paying attendees, guests, volunteers, and staff, Dragon Con comfortably packed close to 63,000 people into five convention hotels in downtown Atlanta.
As far as size goes, it’s one of the biggest events not only of its kind, but in the Atlanta area. According to reports, Dragon Con was by 2014 the 9th largest event in Atlanta in terms of attendance, and pulled in an estimated $55 million in direct, positive economic impact for the city.
Cataloging the range of people to see and things to do at Dragon Con is no easy task. The Dragon Con pocket program booklet for the weekend’s festivities is roughly a quarter inch thick, filled with page after page of multiple daily grids covered in small print. Just the highlights of the convention’s history would be a pretty long list. Over the decades Dragon Con has been host to some of the most popular writers, artists, actors, and performers in genre, and it does that while still keeping the smaller, lesser known but always interesting and entertaining acts, and the fan participation events front and center.
And then there are the fans… Dragon Con has over the years gained itself a richly deserved and well earned reputation of having some of the most creative convention going fans in attendance. Just the cosplay alone that one can see there is impressive beyond words. For some cosplayers, Dragon Con is the event that they save their best and/or newest works for to show them off in all their glory. Just walking through the lobbies and seeing entire battalions of Stormtroopers and Clone Troopers marching along in unison, seeing just about every cartoon, anime, gaming, television, and movie character brought amazing to life before your eyes, and seeing cool original creations that rival the quality of the best film or television creations can be an amazing sight that’s well worth the price of admission. As more than one person has put it over the years, just walking around Dragon Con and seeing the sights is a little like leaving planet Earth for a few days.
But, if I’m going to tell you about Dragon Con and why you should come, I’m going to have to go beyond the general details and get into some of the specific details. I should probably break it down into the different aspects of what you’ll find there to enjoy. And, again, even then there’s no way to cover it all. Dragon Con does have a website (or websites when you consider that some of the individual Tracks basically have their own websites) outlining all the things to do and see, and you could look at every page on the site and still not really have a complete idea of everything that’s there to see and do. But, if I’m going to go about it in that way, I’ll start with the simplest aspect to cover and discuss by looking at the spectacle of it all.
As I mentioned above, Dragon Con long ago earned a reputation as a major cosplay convention. Not only can you see a greater concentration of cosplay at Dragon Con than at many other conventions and other fandom gatherings, but you can often see some of the best. As such, way back in the long ago days of antiquity known as 2002, they decided to harness all of this visually pleasing creativity, turn it into a featured attraction, and introduced the Dragon Con Parade.
The popularity of the parade grew quickly not only with convention goers, but with the locals as well, with many in the Atlanta area coming downtown just to see the parade, and it is a parade unlike any that you will see anywhere else. At a little over a mile long, the procession through the streets of Atlanta shows off not only the wide range of cosplay that can be seen during the Dragon Con weekend, but also cars that have been customized to look like such iconic genre vehicles as the Batmobile, Speed Racer’s Mach 5, and Lord Humugus’s monster machine from the Road Warrior films. Some people build things so elaborate that they rival some of the floats seen in the annual televised Thanksgiving Day parades. You’ll even get the chance to see a featured guest or two along the way, and that all just wets your appetite for the sights to come. Dragon Con loves its cosplayers, and it gives them the ability to showcase their craft in a number of events over the weekend. Two popular events have been the Miss Star Trek Universe Pageant and the From the Page to the Stage: Comic Book Pageant where participants get to show both the packed room and the celebrity judges not only their skills at costuming, but occasionally their skills as a performer. Both of these events and others like them are often hosted by guests of the convention, writers, artists, actors, or even some other creative performers, who all do their best to entertain the crowd and keep things moving along at a lively pace.
Do you want to see an absolutely amazing concentration of organized genre cosplays in one location? There are always massive photo-shoots put together at Dragon Con. And, as mentioned above, you could spend most of the day in the hotel lobbies just people watching and see sights that will surprise you, amaze you, and very much entertain you.
But Dragon Con is not just about the seeing. No, Dragon Con is very much about the doing, and there is so much to do while there that it’s impossible to do everything you want over the four days of the convention. Over the four days of Dragon Con, there is over 3,000 hours of programming to enjoy. My advice to any first-timers? Pace yourself. It’s easy to blow yourself out by Day #2 if you don’t.
One of the things I love about Dragon Con is that while you can do the “big convention” things, they’ve never lost their connection to the fan driven activities. Yes, you can see star studded panels where the casts of Once Upon a Time, Battlestar Galactica, True Blood, Firefly, Stargate, Star Trek, Buck Rogers, The Hobbit, Doctor Who, Power Rangers, Mythbusters, Ghost Hunters, Warehouse 13, MST3K, Revolution, Eureka, and others discuss the shows and films they work on while entertaining packed ballrooms with interesting and often humorous stories of what goes on behind the scenes. Yes, some of the biggest and brightest names in genre fiction are there to be seen and heard as they discuss writing, drawing, or animating the stories you grew up on or the stories that have become your new favorites. And, yes, you can get autographs and have your pictures taken with all of the above. That’s all there to be enjoyed.
But you can also while away the hours enjoying more fan level panels and activities, some of which are very much geared towards being interactive. Have you ever wanted to write about/report on fandom? Have you ever wanted to learn about podcasting and how to do it? Have you ever wanted to publish your own e-novel? Have you ever considered doing your e-novel as a self-published audio book? Thought about doing your own film or your own film FX? Do you want to learn how to build props or create remote controlled robots? During all four days of Dragon Con you will find panels and seminars where fans who are already doing what you want to do, some for long enough to start getting recognition and solid fan followings of their own, are there and happy to share every bit of knowledge they have about what they did right and what they did wrong to help you make your dream come true. Then there are some fan panels that are no more serious than discussing the wide world of the Lego brick and the infinite number of genre creations you can build with them, talking all about the worlds of alternate history fiction ranging from standard “What If” scenarios to the incredible alternate history worlds of Steampunk, and chatting about growing up playing with G.I. Joe.
Are you maybe a little more action oriented in your viewing or interaction preferences? Then they’ve got you covered. You can sit down and watch indie wrestlers, some of whom have fun with the setting and tailor their characters for the convention and putting on an action packed wresting event, or you can seek out the LARPers (Live Action Role-Players) and watch them go at it. Hell, in some groups you can even get a quick LARP how to and join in the fun. There are even seminars on things like self-defense and Tai Chi.
You’ll also find professionals showing off a wide variety of skill sets for the enjoyment of all who attend. Every year a host of stunt performers and weapons experts put on how-to demonstrations ranging from fight choreography in film and television to demonstrations in the art of sword fighting. Do you want to be an active participate in something that’s competitive and fun while not being quite as physical as some of the above activities? Are you a gamer by any chance? Dragon Con has one of the largest gaming areas I’ve seen at a convention that’s not exclusively devoted to gaming, and even then it has some of those beat for the sheer size of it. I’m not sure of the actual square footage, but I’m pretty sure you could have several football games going on at once in their gaming area. You can find any kind of game there, from dice and cards all the way up to immersive, VR style computer games, and there are people who come to Dragon Con who have been known to do nothing more than spend four solid days engaged in whatever games they’re most passionate about with people who share that passion.
Oh, and, by order of my son, we cannot leave out the Robot Battles. For 25 years now Dragon Con has hosted an event where participants build their own remote control machines of destruction in order to pit them against one another in one on one combat. It’s an event where you can marvel at and appreciate the technical abilities of the people who created these remote control robots, or you can simply sit back and enjoy the high-tech knock-down, drag-out nature of the games.
Then there’s all the stuff that’s hard, if not impossible, to find elsewhere. Collectors of all stripes love the dealer areas. Yeah, you might be able to find some of the things that you can get there online, but nothing beats being able to put your hands on something and inspect the quality of it before dropping hard earned money on it. And, yeah, you’ll find nice dealer rooms in many of the smaller, more local to you conventions, but you’ll be hard pressed find a dealer room as large or as diverse at a smaller convention.
However, my personal favorite hard to find item isn’t an item at all. It’s a performance. Since seeing them for the first time at 2006’s Dragon*Con, I’ve been an absolute addict for the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company. You may have noticed that I wrote a piece on them a while back that you can find here. Being in attendance at a live ARTC performance is just plain fun. They’re absolutely top notch performers, and their Dragon Con shows are considered required events by my family and I as well as a number of others who attend. Now, they do perform in other venues in and around the Atlanta area during the year, but no event other than Dragon Con is going to typically bring me down with the 9+ hour drive to Atlanta. For us, Dragon Con is pretty much the only place we’ll see them live.
Dragon Con is also pretty much the only place we get to see a number of other performers we like all in one place. Dragon Con is the only place I can get to in a year that all in one weekend and essentially all under one roof I can get easy access to acts like the Brobdingnagian Bards, the Blibbering Humdingers, Platform One, Voltaire, the Crüxshadows, The Ken Spivey Band, Pandora Celtica, and a number of other genre friendly/oriented performers. One of the overriding rules of Dragon Con is having fun, and they always makes sure that the acts performing there each year amp up the fun factor and then some.
And if genre related musical performances of the fun kind are you thing, they definitely have you covered. Dragon Con is one of the few, perhaps the only, convention of its size that I’ve seen that has an entire track dedicated to Filk.
But what if you already know a lot of this and you’re staying away for a different reason? Maybe you haven’t gone recently, or even haven’t gone for a very long time, because you have young kids and you’ve heard that Dragon Con is a more adult and party orientated convention. You’re not sure you can go family in tow because you’ve heard the wild tales about the crazy days and nights at Dragon Con.
On the one hand, I’ll tell you to take some of those stories with a grain of salt. It is the nature of such tales to grow in the telling after all. On the other hand, well, Dragon Con does have its wild side and its party life. Any gathering of any size will have a party crowd in it. However, these more wild moments are outside of the regular convention hours and programming, and the partying tends to start after the hours that most of the wee ones would be in bed. But what about the daylight hours and the convention tracks themselves? Dragon Con definitely has entire tracks of programming that are more than just a little family friendly. Dragon Con has been around long enough that it’s become a multi-generational thing behind the scenes, and it’s reflecting that in the programming as well.
There are obviously aspects of just about every track of programming at Dragon Con that can be family friendly if you properly pick and choose from it. Certainly the Gaming Track presents a number of opportunities for family activities. The Robotics Maker Fan Track offers panels that should spark the creative (and engineering) minds of the young ones in your life while keeping you entertained as well. And, of course, we can’t leave out the Animation Track, made even more fun when you have voice actor panels where the people who voice the characters that your kids love are talking about the shows they work on while occasionally breaking out into inspired bits of fun.
But above and beyond that, there are tracks at Dragon Con specifically aimed at the younger set. Your little geeks can have a blast at the Dragon Con Kaleidoscope Track, the track for the 9-13 year old geek range, as well as the Young Adult Literature Track. And can we all agree that the Puppetry Track presents amazing opportunities for kids to “meet” characters that they just adore? I’m married. My wife and I have two kids, both under ten years of age. We go as a family, we try to balance out our schedules between our stuff and theirs, we sometimes trade kid wrangling duty so that the other can get to see that one special panel/event that isn’t quite as kid friendly as we might like in order to take out kids along to it, and we all end up having an absolutely blast. It’s easy to do, and it seems as if Dragon Con has been making that even easier to do in recent years. Bonus- Having geek parents/grandparents who want to go to Dragon Con is a great plus! Odds are good that you’ll then have babysitters for the evening.
But the #1 reason to go to Dragon Con, for my family at least, has to be the people you’ll meet there. I will freely and often proclaim my great love for fandom. In the second half of my life so far, the best friends I’ve made have been made through fandom. Since my first Dragon*Con in 2006, with only one group of film-making friends as the exception, all of the best friends I’ve made through fandom have been people I’ve met either at or through Dragon Con. For me, the vast majority of the people who attend Dragon Con represent the best aspect of fandom.
And I don’t say that the people there are a great reason to go just because I do end up making so many friends there. I say it because the people there, from the people who attend right on up to those who run it, create an energy and a vibe at Dragon Con that is what I find to be the “right” one for me. Almost everyone who is there is there to have fun and to share the experience of Dragon Con with everyone else who is there. Almost everyone who attends has a passion for something in genre, something geek related. They want to share it with others even as they want to meet new people who will share their favorite geek thing with them, maybe even introduce them to something they’ve never seen before that will become a new favorite for them.
I also say that the Dragon Con community has the right vibe and energy because so many of the people there want to give back to the community in some way or another. Dragon Con has long been known for its ties to a number of charities. Each year the attendees contribute to various good causes and the convention itself donates as well. Not everything that’s given is purely financial either. Dragon Con is the home of one of the largest LifeSouth blood drives in the region. In recent years they’ve gone even further with their charity participation. The Dragon Con Superheroes program was developed so that Dragon Con members, staff, and volunteers can continue to give back to the community throughout the year, donating time and money to everything from helping to maintain the Saltwater Creek State Park to joining the Walk to End Lupus as both participants in the walk itself or to hand out towels and refreshments to the walkers. in 2015, the official charity of the event is the Lymphoma Research Foundation – Georgia Market.
When you get have kind of energy, that kind of attitude and vibe, from the top down and from the bottom up, something pretty amazing usually happens. It creates an atmosphere where everything just seems more fun. You could, with very few exceptions, move a panel or an activity to another convention, every aspect of it being exactly the same save for the venue and the crowd, and, while it certainly still could be great, it’s not going to feel quite as fun because it’s missing that Dragon Con energy and vibe. Because of its people, from the people attending all the way up to those running it, and the vibe they create, just about anything you do at Dragon Con just seems so much more fun than it does almost anywhere else. It’s why you find yourself counting the days on the calendar until the next one as soon as you get home and unpack.
It’s also because of those people and that vibe that you will always walk away from Dragon Con with more friends than you walked in with, and more people that you’re looking forward to seeing again next year. And for me and my family, that is easily the best reason to go.
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Disclaimer – I have been a fan and an attendee of Dragon Con for almost a full decade now. Starting with Dragon Con 2014, I also become a volunteer behind the scenes.