DragonCon is the largest pop culture convention in the Eastern United States, and gets bigger every year. The event is steadily growing, attendance topping 70,000 this year (2015). With more and more interest in it, I thought it might help some people to get an overview of the event if they are trying to decide to go or not (yes, you should). Below I will do my best to break down this article into facts and suggestions.
DragonCon is a huge event that takes place in five different host hotels, plus a separate space for vendors selling all kinds of merchandise. Many years ago it started in the Marriott Marquis, and that is still considered to be the core of the Con by many. The Marriott is connected by sky-bridges, also called Habitrails by Con-goers, to the Hilton Atlanta and the Hyatt Regency. A few blocks from the Hyatt is the Westin, and a similar distance from the Hilton is the
Sheraton. These five hotels have the vast majority of the events in them.
The different areas of interest are called Tracks. There are Tracks for Writers, Star Trek, Star Wars, Costuming, Science, Urban Fantasy, and many, many more. Each Track has panels, specific talks that are listed in the schedule. Panels tend to run from about 10 AM until 11:30 PM or so, on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of Labor Day Weekend. There is additional programming Monday from 10 AM until approximately 4 in the afternoon.
DragonCon is deeply involved in charity. There is a large blood drive every year which collects thousands of units of blood and plasma, and a different charity each year. In 2015, they collected over $100,000 for Lymphoma research.
The guests at DragonCon cover an impressive range of television and movie stars, writers, artists, and performers. This year, for example, the majority of the casts of both Arrow and Flash attended, as well as Lost Girl, and even cancelled shows like Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Warehouse 13. There are famed comic book artists and writers, best selling and mid-level novelists. The website, www.dragoncon.org is updated fairly often with additional guests as the Con approaches.
The dealers’ room, or vendor area, used to be in the host hotels, but it has far outgrown that space. This year, it was in the America’s Mart 2 Building, somewhat between the Hyatt and the Westin. The dealers took up over two floors of space, selling books, comics, artwork, costumes, props, videos, t-shirts, and much more. There’s also an art show with various comic book and fine artists, which was still in the Hilton at least this year.
Every year, in addition to all this, there are other events that take place outside the buildings. The DragonCon parade goes over several blocks, with participants divided up by section for their costumes- Stat Wars, Star Trek, Dr. Who, Marvel and DC Comics, and other categories. The parade is a big event that they close down city streets for, and the route was about a mile long. It’s impressive to see, but also makes it damn near impossible to get to your 10 AM panels Saturday morning on time.
They also have a night at the Georgia Aquarium every year. The Aquarium is impressive by itself, but at night, filled with hordes of costumed characters, it looks amazing. There are places to sign up for this through the website.
Speaking of, you need to wear your badge and have it visible at all times. It’s what lets you in to the various hotels where the events are. Badges are available for pick up starting Thursday. In the past, badge pick up took a long time and had many problems. Over the last few years, they have streamlined the process, and the wait time has dropped from long hours to not much more than a few minutes.
Before I move on to my suggestions, I’ll deal with two questions I hear asked a lot. No, you don’t have to go in costume. A lot of people don’t. I’d guess it breaks down to something like 60% in costume, 40 % not, and that fluctuates by day and by time. I really enjoy putting together costumes for characters I like, but you absolutely don’t have to do that. As one friend of mine said, “The cosplayers need spectators!” Before I move on to the next question, let me mention one thing about the people in costume. It’s considered good manners to ask before taking pictures. I’ve never heard someone in costume say no, but still, it’s only polite. As the slogan goes at many cons, “Cosplay is not consent.”
The other thing I hear a lot of people ask about is bringing kids. There is an entire Track devoted to kids, so they are, indeed, welcome. But I’ll make a few suggestions on this front. First of all, as it gets later, especially Friday and Saturday nights, some of the costumes get a lot more interesting and a lot… smaller. Nudity isn’t allowed, but some folks come real close. As the evenings go on, I’d recommend to you keep the kids in the room. That’s not a rule, it’s a suggestion based on experience. Also, in the panels, the people coming in have paid good money to hear their favorites talk. If your child is fussy, crying, what-have-you, please, take them outside. I know you don’t want to miss the talk, but neither do the people around you.
As time has passed, each hotel has taken on its own flavor. The Sheraton, off by itself at the bottom of the hill (believe me, once you get there, you’ll know what hill) is where the Brit-Track is based. Most of your panels about Dr. Who, Monty Python, Orphan Black, and similar shows are down here. This also where one of the bigger ballrooms is, and some of the bigger parties at night are here. The Sheraton is also where you pick up your badges for the Con.
The Hilton, lowest on the hill of the three connected buildings, is where a lot of the big photo shoots happen on a large set of stairs out back. The Hilton lobby has a balcony around it on the second floor, and you can get a great vantage point on some of the large costumes and groups. I’ve seen a team of Spartans from the movie 300 here, as well as huge dragons and other fun stuff. It has a coffee shop.
The Marriott, center of the connected ones, is the big party. This is where you’ll see the most costumes, the most people, and where most of the early arrivals tend to gather. A lot of the big panels with the big names are here, too. The main level opens up on a soaring tower, and the lobby goes down two levels, all of which are packed with costumes, then a third that’s pretty much just an exit/entrance.. Also, for you coffee addicts, there’s a Starbucks here on the level below the main one, and a snack bar. Just to be confusing, the skybridges to the other hotels are on different levels. One skybridge also leads to the food court.
The Hyatt is the highest on the hill of the three connected ones. While the Marriott has more people and costumes, some of the cooler, if odder, stuff happens up here as the nights go on. Spontaneous dance parties, improvised clubs, and all manner of silliness happen. The Marriott seems more like a club, but the Hyatt ends up more like a clubhouse.
The Westin is a huge tower, the tallest building in the area. It’s the most recent addition to the host hotels. A lot of the Urban Fantasy track panels are in this building, from smaller talks to stars that fill the larger conference rooms. There aren’t as many parties or gatherings in this building, but that’s starting to change as time passes.
Now, on to my suggestions:
As I said above, the Con officially runs Friday through Monday. I get there early, usually Wednesday, and leave Tuesday. There is so much to see and do that even if you don’t indulge in the many, many bars in the various hotels, you are going to be exhausted by Monday. Traveling when you’re dead tired is never fun, especially not if you’re driving. Also, if you’re there Thursday, you can get your badge then, and not miss actual Con time while you’re doing that. If you can only do one or the other, I’d say leave later, but that’s up to you of course. Thursday night now has various pre-events, and an unofficial party in the Mariott lobby area. In fact, this party has now expanded, and many attendees are there Wednesday night as well.
If you do get there early, another suggestion is that you take some time and walk the hotels. Maps are nice, but don’t show you everything. Nothing replaces having actually seen things for yourself. It’s a lot easier to navigate to the panels if you at least have a basic idea where you’re going.
It doesn’t matter how carefully you plan, you will not see everything you want to. There are multiple Tracks, each with programming every hour or so. With programming that often spread out over five hotels, you just can’t be in two (or more) places at once. Know this going in, take a breath, and listen to Elsa: “Let It Go.” If you keep coming back, you just might get another shot at that panel, or at least many of the same people, next year.
You also need to pace yourself. It’s a few long days, and you will see more stuff by not getting sick than by not taking a break. You need to eat, you need to rest, and everyone else around will appreciate it if you shower at least once a day. I recommend bringing vitamins and taking them every day. Also, if you know you don’t do that well after the first drink, just stop. It’s easier on you and everyone around you.
Speaking of food, there are a lot of great places to eat in the area. There’s a large food court that is attached by yet more Habitrails to both the Hyatt and the Mariott. Even if you don’t eat there, that can be a way to get from one hotel to the other with less crowd. The food court has a lot of different places to eat. Personally, I’ve gotten rather fond of a place called Great Wraps. Despite the long lines, especially in the morning, they get the food out fast, it’s good, and they don’t skimp on the portions. My only problem with them is occasionally in the crush of the crowd, a few minor errors creep in, like sausage instead of bacon. There’s a 24-hour diner near the hotels called the Metro Diner, which has good food and a lot of karaoke. They need to work on the area people wait for tables, but again, it’s good food and a lot of it. Other places I recommend are Ted’s Montana Grill, Hsu’s Chinese and Sweet Georgia’s Juke Joint. I don’t work at any of those places, don’t know anyone who does, and don’t own stock or anything. I’ve just found them to be really good. There’s also a Hard Rock Café in the area, and they have both good food and special pins and shirts for DragonCon every year.
There are several hotels in the area besides the five host hotels. The host hotels sell out really quickly. DragonCon ended on Monday. The Friday after, when I’m writing this, the Weston and the Hilton have already sold out for 2016. I haven’t stayed at one of the host hotels in a few years, and I’m quite happy with that. The host hotels are closer to the action, of course, but it’s a lot easier to get a good night’s sleep at some of the other hotels.
DragonCon can be overwhelming. They are smart enough to know this themselves. Starting on that early Thursday I keep mentioning, they have tours and talks for newcomers. Check the schedule before you go, so you can plan to go to one.
Speaking of planning, the crowds there are really, really big. There is half an hour between most panels, and you’ll need most of it to get from one place to another. There are crowds everywhere. The food court, the coffee shops, especially the skybridges, all get really crowded. There are several ATMs in the area. By late Saturday, they will pretty much all be empty.
The businesses in the area are smart. They bump their prices up during that weekend. The parking lots get especially pricey. Now, if you don’t care about the price, that’s fine. Personally, I have discovered that Atlanta has a great public transportation system, and that garages in other areas of the city don’t jump their prices.
Like you’d expect, all the hotels have elevators. It’s a huge crowd, and more and more people in wheelchairs and scooters are attending. Both because the elevators can have really long wait times, and because there are folks that actually need them, I’d suggest checking out the escalators or even the stairs.
Speaking of stairs, there’s a lot of walking. Five hotels, the space between them, and hunting up food covers a lot of ground. Good shoes and being in at least half-way decent shape before you go are good ideas.
I’ve been to DragonCon several times. Every year, at least part of one day if not more, it has rained. At this point, I’d say count on it happening. Unless you’re staying in one of the three connected hotels, and not going to any panels in the Westin and/or Sheraton, plan for dealing with rain at least a little.
All of these are suggestions based on my own experiences. You certainly don’t need to do any of them to enjoy DragonCon. I think they make things easier, but maybe that’s me. And if you’ve been, and found a really good idea that I’ve missed, feel free to add it in the comments below.