How Does Dragon*Con Stack Up Against SDCC?

DragonCon2013-1 by PatLoika, on Flickr
DragonCon2013-1 by PatLoika, on Flickr

The 27th annual Dragon*Con convention was held over the 2013 Labor Day weekend in Hotlanta Atlanta, and this long running geek gathering has been a favorite among attendees because of its stellar cosplay and emphasis on fans rather than a big corporate presence like some of the larger, more popular conventions such as Fan Expo, New York Comic-Con and San Diego Comic-Con. And in terms of attendance, it’s nearly doubled since 2007 and has grown over 10% per year, hitting 52,000 in 2012. Attendance figures for 2013 haven’t yet been released, but based on these trends, expectations are that it would reach nearly 60,000 and would rank seventh among the top comic conventions in North America, right ahead of Phoenix Comic-Con.

So what is it about Dragon*Con that attracts so many? We’ve asked a few of our readers that same question, and how it differs from SDCC. Special thanks to readers Chelsea St. Juniors  (@IfIWereMagneto) and Brandon Zurawski (@kudzumon) for the info, and Pat Loika for the images.

Tickets: Badges for Dragon*Con, called “memberships”, are offered at a tiered pricing depending on how early you buy. Looking at 2014’s membership prices, an early-bird can score access to all four days of the convention for as little as $65, or all the way up to $130 up until the middle of August and at the door. Yes, we said “at the door”; it seems that early birds for Dragon*Con are encouraged and rewarded, rather than required as for SDCC.

St. Juniors, a first-timer to Dragon*Con who also attended SDCC this year, said this about the ticketing process: “[Dragon*Con] doesn’t have the same volume of goers or a cap on attendees so there’s not the same air of desperation with buying badges for it vs. SDCC. There’s no war to get into the online holding room, no potential nervous breakdowns and whatnot, no worries that you or your family/friend won’t get a badge. It’s definitely easier in that aspect.”

Zurawski, who attended his third Dragon*Con in 2013, echoes this comment. “Someone  at Comic-Con told me I am lucky, because he has never met someone who got a 4-Day badge on their first try,” he says. Something I’ve never heard at Dragon*Con.”

Length of Con: Dragon*Con takes advantage of the Labor Day holiday weekend and lasts a full four days, Friday through Monday, and as with SDCC the first and last days are the least attended, while the weekend days are the most crowded. Zurawski says, “Friday and Monday have great panels with very short lines.”

Exhibitors: The setup of Dragon*Con isn’t like your typical convention, as it takes place in multiple hotels within a few blocks. Think of it if SDCC was held only in the Gaslamp hotels rather than the Convention Center. “Dragon*Con took place in five separate hotels (Sheraton, Hilton, Marriott, Hyatt, Westin) and the AmericasMart within a few blocks radius,” says St. Juniors. “Exhibitors were all over the place. Not necessarily a bad thing but the Dealer’s Room was in AmericasMart, I saw a few in the Hyatt beneath the panel room floors, I saw some in the Marriott near the Walk of Fame (the room for celebrity autographs), and a couple in the Sheraton too. It was a bit confusing but it wasn’t all that bad.”

Zurawski says there’s a clear difference between the exhibitors at Dragon*Con and the Exhibit Hall in San Diego. “Dragon*Con has fewer exhibitors, and many of them return year after year. They are also more likely to join in the fun after they are done working. This year, I found some people from the exhibitors hall walking around the Marriott wearing Xena costumes. They were available to chat and pose for pictures.”

Autographs/Photo-Ops: The autograph drawings at SDCC are infamous for their long, early lines in Sails and mad dashes to booths, but the benefit is that a celebrity or cast signing is generally free. Not so with most other conventions, as they require attendees to pay for each autograph, and sometimes upwards of a hundred dollars or more. Zurawski says there’s a mix of each at Dragon*Con. “I have seen both free and paid photo opportunities. It depends which guest is available and what their representation decides. Over all the selection is pretty good. Again, it depends on the year. A friend got some great pictures this year for $20 each, and was able to get her comic books signed for free by the artists. The most I’ve seen anyone pay is $60.” St. Juniors adds, “Some of the celebs were more inclined to take their pictures with fans for free (ex. Doug Jones; William Kircher aka Bifur took pictures with three fans in AMAZING dwarf Hobbit cosplay).”

“The variation for autographs was great as well,” St. Juniors adds. “You had cast members from The Walking Dead, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Torchwood, Star Trek, The Hobbit, Doctor Who, and so many others. I really think they had a fantastic Walk of Fame this year.”

Programming: Dragon*Con offers its programming in “fan tracks”, of which there were 38 this year, spanning subjects such as Alternate History, Puppetry and Asian Cinema among its many offerings. If it’s big network and studio panels you’re after, there are a few but no where near the level which appeared at San Diego. “A good comparison would be Game of Thrones at Comic-Con and Dragon*Con”, Zurawski uses as an example, “While a large portion of the main cast appeared at Comic-Con, Dragon*Con had James Cosmo and Natalia Tena, who both play side characters. The Comic-Con panel for Game of Thrones was fantastic. However, James Cosmo and Natalia Tena asked everyone in costume to stand up, said they were touched at the effort that went into them, and commented on specific characters because we were close enough for the panelists to see us.”

Exclusives and Swag: Like with Fan Expo Canada, Dragon*Con doesn’t reach the level of exclusive merchandise available to attendees that we’re used to at SDCC, and the attendees we interviewed didn’t recall seeing any being sold by exhibitors. The swag situation wasn’t much better, so if you plan on attending Dragon*Con next year, you can use that extra space in your luggage for your cosplay instead of the mound of free t-shirts you would get in San Diego.

DragonConline by PatLoika, on Flickr
DragonConline by PatLoika, on Flickr

Lines and Attendance: With the growth of Dragon*Con over the years, lines at some of the more popular events are inevitable, as explained by St. Juniors. “The D*C crowd is always smaller by FAR but it felt even MORE packed. There were still some panels that I had to wait hours for at D*C while sacrificing time to do other things or other panels (that seems to be a universal con standard however). There was a strong presence at all the panels I went to and even to ones I didn’t just from looking at lines when I walked past. And like I explained further up, because it felt more packed, it was a bit harder to maneuver at D*C for me. Yet I’m happy to see cons do so well in regards of attendance so it made me pleased that panels and events weren’t being neglected in such a way.”

But there’s one big difference between Dragon*Con and SDCC: Rooms are cleared out between each panel, so the double-digit hour wait times are non-existent. “They actually give you more time between panels at Dragon*Con (30 minutes compared to 15),” says St. Juniors, “because they make you clear out of the room for each one (except for on Monday because mostly everyone was gone by then).”

DragonCon2013-3 by PatLoika, on Flickr
DragonCon2013-3 by PatLoika, on Flickr

Outside Attractions and Offsite Events: Essentially, Dragon*Con is one big offsite event, taking place among several hotels in close proximity of one another. “Comic-Con’s offsite events are more professionally run, and Dragon*Con would greatly benefit from something like that,” says Zurawski. “What you’ll mostly find are restaurants with late hours, karaoke nearby, and room parties in the hotel. The best parties I attended were the ones at Dragon*Con itself.” St. Juniors adds, “The off-site parties I went to were great… [they] need to continue being a thing every year… You’ll never get bored at one, that’s for sure.”

Dragon*Con might not have the major corporate presence that San Diego Comic-Con does, but those who attend do it just to have a big party with fellow fans. “The crowd at Dragon*Con seems more playful than the crowd at Comic-Con,” Kurawski says. “In the Doctor Who Ball, we turned a 4th Doctor’s scarf into a limbo stick. At one point I turned a corner to find a group of dressed up as the cast of Adventure Time. Their costumes were illuminated and playing music while they danced in the hallways. I didn’t see that sort of fan-led craziness at Comic-Con.”

You’ll find one similarity with SDCC, however: Hanging out and having fun with other geeks. “You meet new people, chat about things you like, eat and drink, have a good time and enjoy the festivities,” says St. Juniors.

Did you go to Dragon*Con? Are you planning to attend in the future? Leave us a comment and let us know.

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