Dragon*Con, Atlanta’s annual Labor Day weekend celebration of all things sci-fi, fantasy and pop culture, has come and gone. This year marked the con’s largest year yet with an attendance pushing around 68,000 fans flooding into Georgia for the long weekend to enjoy the company of their fellow fans, high profile industry guests, panels and themed parties.
So where does this mighty little con stand against the likes of our very own San Diego Comic-Con? I spent the weekend on the ground in humid Hotlanta hoping to find out.
Location, location, location
With attendance growing exponentially every year and nearly touching 70,000 this year alone, Dragon*Con is by no means a small convention. However, you’ll find that the convention actually feels much larger than it looks on paper. This is in part due to the con’s traditional location in downtown Atlanta. Unlike many other conventions of its size, Dragon*Con does not have a central convention center and instead is splintered in equal parts across five host hotels. Most of these host hotels are interconnected by webs of skywalks and intermittent business plazas which not only makes navigating the convention area a challenge in and of itself, but also condenses (and sometimes bottlenecks) the crowds into tight spaces. Those that are not on the skywalk routes can be even more challenging to get to for anyone who isn’t familiar with the layout of downtown Atlanta. And, in addition to the host hotels, the main dealers area is located in a separate building all it’s own.
You can see how this would become something of a navigational and logistical challenge for the uninitiated.
Unlike Comic-Con which floods out across the greater part of downtown San Diego for the week, Dragon*Con feels wedged into the daily life of the city as the city goes on around it. Getting from place to place is an endeavor and if the weather takes a turn for the worse (this year it thunder stormed off and on for several hours on Saturday), it can become almost impossible to traverse the skywalks at all.
This is far from a deal breaker, though. What the convention area lacks in space, it makes up for in functionality. A central point between the five host hotels is a large foot court offering a variety of both fast food and sit down restaurants which is hugely convenient as both a meeting place and a quick, necessary place to eat on a budget. On top of that, the unique architecture of the area is a cosplayer’s dream. In fact, the Atlanta Marriott was actually used as a filming location for the most recent installment of The Hunger Game‘s film series. What better place for a sci-fi oriented convention than a hotel that literally belongs in a sci-fi film?
The maze-like quality of the host hotel network did provide a bit of an issue for cell phone service, however. Texting, tweeting, and otherwise checking into social networks ranged anywhere from slow to impossible in many of the major areas for attendees across multiple carriers and phone models.
Panels on TV
One of the coolest and most unique features of Dragon*Con is something called “Dragon*Con TV”. The in-house TV station for the five host hotels is temporarily morphed into an all-access convention news channel for the weekend. It features everything from comedy sketches and interviews to live simulcasts of panels and concerts.
Given the sometimes challenging task of navigating the convention area, and the time consuming nature of getting around the convention at peak hours, Dragon*Con TV is an outstandingly convenient alternative for anyone who may not be up for braving the crowds or standing in line to see their favorite panels. Instead, they can watch from the best seats in the house without ever leaving the comfort for their hotel beds.
It is also important to note that Dragon*Con clears out each panel room after every panel so lines do stay relatively manageable in size. On average, lining up one to two and a half hours in advance for more popular panels seemed to net fans satisfactory seats, so feel free to leave your sleeping bags and air mattresses at home as you won’t need to sleep on the sidewalk for any panel at Dragon*Con.
Dragon*Con has often been likened to a geek-themed Mardi Gras and with good reason. For all four days, the convention is overflowing with costumers in outfits from every imaginable corner of pop culture and beyond. Master craftsmen from all over the world come to display their creations on the convention floor and in the various cosplay masquerade competitions.
If it’s showy or simple, popular or obscure, old or new, there’s a very good chance you’ll see it represented in some way at the con.
In fact, each year on Saturday morning, Dragon*Con hosts a massive parade through the city featuring cosplayers, floats, and guests to give everyone who might be interested a look at just how massive the spectrum of fans in attendance really is. The parade is open to the public and packs sidewalks very early (which also gives a nice window of opportunity for anyone who isn’t interested in the parade to move around the indoor convention area with ease for several hours).
Dragon*Con’s friendliness and enthusiasm for cosplayers has even gone so far as to prompt a need for “cosplay lounge” areas. This year Riot Games took over the 10th floor atrium of the Marriott and transformed it into a veritable break room for tired cosplayers with seats, water, and repair stations for any and all last minute wear and tear. Several vendor booths in the dealer’s room area followed suit on a smaller scale, offering corners with chairs, hot glue guns, and hand sewing stations to cosplayers in need.
Bang for your Buck
Dragon*Con’s badges are sold as “memberships” and, while readily available almost all year round, steadily increase in price as the convention gets closer. Badges purchased almost a year in advance will be an affordable $75, while badges purchased on site during the convention can run around $150 for all four days.
This makes budgeting for D*C a matter of planning as far in advance as possible, it also means that every attendees mileage may vary as far as feeling like they got their moneys worth from their weekend pass.
D*C’s lack of a true exhibit hall space also means that freebies and notable swag are essentially nonexistence. If you’re the sort of person who prides themselves on taking home bags of exclusive free things from SDCC in lieu of true souvenirs, you may find yourself disappointed. You’ll be purchasing any collectibles you want to take home from this con, and you’ll have to make room in your budget for that.
Dragon*Con’s programming is unique and covers a massive spectrum between comics, fantasy, the paranormal, hard science, and everything in between. It is, however, still a fan-run con that lacks in industry presence. While D*C’s panels may be star studded, you will not be treated to the same level of first-look exclusivity or swag that you would find from San Diego Comic-Con. Now, obviously, this is neither here or there as far as evaluating the convention on it’s own merits is concerned, but it is something to ask yourself before committing to ponying up the money for the con. What is it, exactly, that you are hoping to get out of your convention experience? What constitutes as successful con to you, personally?
If you’re looking for an energetic, party atmosphere with panels that feel more like round-table discussions than announcement spectacles; if you’re looking for a chance to drink and be merry surrounded by 60,000 of your closest friends, Dragon*Con is absolutely worth every penny.
Does Dragon*Con sound like a convention you’d enjoy attending? Let us know in the comments.