On September 2nd I arrived in Atlanta Georgia for the brilliant Geek Mardi Gras Dragon Con 2015. The convention wasn’t due to start till Friday 4th but already there were cosplayers and fellow attendees out and about on the streets starting the celebrations. It was really exciting, people were warm, friendly and welcoming. It felt like we were arriving at a great big party full of friends.
Dragon con is a four day convention that takes place annually in Atlanta. It is spread across 5 host hotels (The Hyatt, Marriott, Hilton, Sheraton and Westin) and over two floors of the Amercias Mart (a trade center).
Dragon con is divided up into tracks (categories), each track is like a convention unto itself. Tracks cover different types of fandom including Star Wars, Star Trek, Gaming, Animation and all sorts of different subjects like space, science, literature, podcasting etc. Each track has approximately two events running at anyone time, with most tracks running from 9am till about midnight although there are events pretty much 24 hours for the whole four days.
In the run up to the convention my group and I had been preparing using the Dragon Con App. To get an idea of what the programming is like I’d suggest downloading the app as it has all the scheduling for the last two years. The App was really useful in planning for the Con. Schedules can easily be created by working through each track of interest and “Starring” things to attend. Each Starred item is then arranged into a schedule. There were loads of other useful features in the App from social networking, making it easier to make friends or find friends, helpful maps and daily updates so you always know what’s going on. I was running the App off an iPhone and had no issues, a couple of my friends were running the App off Android phones and had problems with crashing when trying to update.
Prior to arrival in Atlanta I had heard that each year the convention kicks off earlier and earlier (comments like Wednesday being the new Friday), I did speak to a couple of groups that had been there since Tuesday. On Wednesday there were a few parties already happening. Some of my group attended a party in the Pulse bar at the Marriott although I ducked out due to jet lag from the journey. They had a great time drinking and meeting the locals, including the Ghostbusters and R2D2.
Our first full day was Thursday, we weren’t able to secure a host Hotel and stayed in the Hampton Inn about a miles walk from the convention. This wasn’t much of an issue as a mile isn’t far but next time I think we’ll aim to stay closer as it would be nice to be able to nip back to the hotel to freshen up and drop things off.
The first thing to do was head to the Sheraton to pick up our badges. We got off to a great start as there was no queue for badge pickup and it was a really quick process. The badge is clearly designed for a lanyard but comes with a clip to attach it to yourself. Our next stop was the official Dragon Con shop to buy a lanyard. This queue took about 20 minutes although there were people from the stall walking around selling just the lanyard. We declined this as we wanted to see all the merch, there was loads of official Dragon Con stuff. I got a t-shirt and a lanyard. All the products for sale were really good quality, impressive!
In the afternoon we attended the Newbies Walking tour. This kicked off in the Marriott with a Q&A. The Newbies Q&A was led by Kevin Belcher who set up the Dragon Con Newbies Facebook page. For anyone thinking about attending Dragon Con this group is the place to start to help with planning and to ask questions of the community. The walking tours were leaving every 15 minutes or so with groups of about 20+. The Q&A was really useful and gave a good idea of what to look forward to. Our group was led by a cool looking Warlock named Stuart (his own design based on his D&D character). The tour covered the three main hotels and the peach tree food court. With the other convention locations pointed out on our journey. We were shown how to negotiate between hotels via both the sky bridges and the streets. It was a surreal feeling walking the streets of Atlanta being led around by a Wizard, definitely different from any UK convention experience. It really felt like we were new arrivals at an established community. As we walked the hotels people would call out to us to welcome us to Dragon Con. A fun and useful tour, a great start.
Dragon Con kicked off properly on the Friday morning, our four days were packed with all sorts. I had a full schedule of things I wanted to check out, there were loads of clashes but this worked out fine as it gave me lots of options.
There were loads of panels happening over the course of the weekend. It was easy to get into all the ones I wanted although for the bigger talks my group and I turned up an hour before to make sure we got in. Officially Dragon Con doesn’t allow lines to form until an hour before a panel is due to start. Although we arrived at a couple of panels just over an hour early to find we were nowhere near the front of the queue, we always managed to get good seats. We attended an interview with Felicia Day which was a great panel. The interview mainly focused on Felicia’s new book which resulted in, at times, quite a personal and revealing conversation although this was balanced with a lot of pretty wacky humour. This was the most popular talk we attended, due to the layout of the Marriott the queuing system was very confusing snaking all over the place. Fortunately we had arrived in good time to avoid having to try to figure out where the queue started and ended.
The other big panels I attended were the 100 cast, The Flash cast and Battlestar Galactica. All of these were really good with the BSG probably my most favourite. Seven members of the show were on stage, with Edward James Olmos sitting centrally and leading the panel. I attended the Monday morning panel and walked straight in getting a seat right near the front. Some of the cast looked a little worn out from the weekends partying. I had heard that the cast had been playing knock door run in the Hyatt in the early hours. The panel finished with Admiral Adama leading the audience in a “so say we all” chant! Awesome stuff!
As well as the celebrity panels I went to a number of fan-run panels which proved to be really fun. These were very different from normal celebrity Q&As. They were very much an open discussion led by the panel heavily involving the audience. We attended a real variety of different fan panels across the weekend. Including a fun talk in the armoury and a couple of different panels about Cosplay. By far the best fan panel was DARE! The Transformers Panel Ultimate (that’s not a grammar mistake it’s a reference to the Japanese TF series) on a Sunday night and is probably one of my all time favourite panels. It was hosted by Tom Croom and was scheduled to last two hours thirty. Before attending I didn’t expect to stay for the whole thing (I thought we’d get bored). Although I’m a big TF fan I didn’t think it would be fun enough to keep me entertained for all that time so planned to sneak out when I lost interest. Unfortunately Tom Croom had lost his videos and Power Point in transit but he was so charismatic and entertaining it didn’t matter. We stayed right till the end, even though I disagree with his opinions on Beast Wars (one of my favourite TF tales).
Saturday was a day of highlights that were unique to Dragon Con. In the morning my group and I attended the Cosplay Parade. This runs over about a mile of road down to the main hotels, the roads are blocked off to accommodate. We got there about an hour before it kicked off and found a spot right at the front not far from the start. The audience turnout was huge, a mix of locals and convention attendees, everyone was super friendly and chatty. The parade lasted for nearly two hours and was so impressive, a great mix of all sorts of fandoms and creativity. There were big and small groups, floats, cars, horse backed Knights, marching bands and Larpers. Most of the tracks were represented as were many fandoms, an amazing sight.
In the evening we attended the Dragon Con night at the aquarium. I would have attended the aquarium regardless of the Con but this seemed like an even cooler way to experience it. The aquarium really is a stunning experience. It’s massive, the opening lobby area is huge like a giant night club. Rather than being restricted to exploring the aquarium through a start to finish linear route there are entrances to each of the different areas from the main lobby. The aquarium was packed with convention goers (the evening was a Dragon Con special event) with loads of cosplayers wearing an underwater theme. The tanks were amazing, very inventively laid out, with a massive variety of creatures. The main ocean tunnel was the absolute highlight of the aquarium containing 20 million litres of water and a Whale Shark. A Cosplay competition took place but I spent so much time looking around the aquarium that I missed it, although I did see lots of Cosplay photo shoots in such a fantastic setting.
An unexpected highlight were the bands. Before arriving I was aware that there would be bands but I wasn’t expecting to spend so much time watching them. The bands area in the Marriott became our meeting space and where we would head in between panels. The Marriott hosted bands in the concourse outside the artists alley, there were performances outside the vendors hall also. In the evening the bigger groups performed in the main halls at the Hyatt. I only watched the bands in the Marriott and they were great, there was an intimate relaxed vibe. People would sit on the floor in front of the stage area, in the evening the space would really fill up. After each band finished they would move to the side to man their merch table, allowing them to hang out and meet their fans. I’d recommend all the bands I saw including the Double Clicks, Misbehaving Maidens, Geekappella and Hank West and the Smoking Hots. It would be ace if UK conventions started to incorporate a geek bands area, genuinely great!
We often watched the bands late into the evening although there was loads to do of a night. Most of it revolving around parties, more bands, drinking and even raves which would go on to about 6am. I missed a lot of this as the days were long and tiring although I went to the Marriott a couple of evenings. The Marriott seemed to be the main place to hang out with loads of Congoers hanging around the Pulse bar. On one of the evenings while in the Pulse bar Chief Tyrol (Arron Douglas) from BSG was walking around enjoying a drink with fans. I have heard that other celebrities were hanging out of an evening enjoying a drink but didn’t spot any. I did bump into Apollo (Jamie Bamber) on the streets walking between hotels which was cool. Dragon Con is known for a couple of signature drinks, Pie and buckets of Rum. We did check out the Hyatts famous bucket of rum, which tasted sweet and was easy to drink. I didn’t particularly notice any effects on the evening but felt rotten the next day 🙁
The artists area was split into two sections the Artist Alley and the Art Show. Both were really fun and swallowed a whole pile of my money. The Artist Alley was similar to those seen in UK shows but with a bigger variety of wares for sale. There were stalls with comics and art but there were lots of stalls for cuddly toys and all sorts of different crafts. There was a good mix of independent comic vendors for both small and large independents. There was even a space for bigger name comic book artists when I went through George Perez (Avengers, JLA) was there doing signings and meeting fans.
The second half of the hall contained the art show, unfortunately photography wasn’t allowed in here. There were more stalls around the edges of the room all manned by the artists. The artists covered lots of different styles from fine art to sculpture. The middle of the room was divided up into rows with lots of cubicles, one for each of the creatives. In each booth there was a small selection of art with a bidding form below to allow for a silent auction. A space was set aside for the Jim Henson Company to display some of their muppets (these weren’t for sale). The work on display was amazing, with so many different creative styles, my favourite being the Pokemon terrariums. Both halls of the art show should definitely be visited, a must see.
We left the vendor halls till the Sunday and Monday afternoons as each time we walked past the Americas Mart there were big queues. The vendors halls were spread over two floors and from talking to other congoers this is the largest it has ever been. I had read before arrival that it could get very crowded. We fortunately walked straight in both days without hassle. The vendors hall was excellent, probably one of my favourite of all the conventions I’ve been to. Simply because of the variety of stalls and the huge mix of products on offer. Often I find there is an abundance of one type of fandom and others are neglected; here the balance was perfect with something for everyone. There was furniture, clothing, gaming, homeware, books, comics, DVDs and collectables. Two of the biggest stalls were the lightsabers stand and the dice stand. They offered a massive selection of their chosen specialism and were both swarming with customers. Unfortunately these two stalls were directly opposite one another often causing blockages down the aisle. I spent tons of money, more than I expected, partly due to the exchange rate and from finding products I would be able to pick up back home.
Dragon Con 2015 was so much fun with a huge variety of things on offer although it’s a little overwhelming. I didn’t feel I missed out on anything but there were things I just couldn’t fit into my schedule. I would have loved to have stayed out later and attended more parties but by the end of each day I was too tired. Although I was happy with my hotel, in future I’ll be looking to stay as close as possible to the main hotels if not at a host hotel, next time aiming to arrive in the US earlier to allow myself time to adjust to the time difference.
It is really important to mention how friendly the whole convention was. People were always ready to strike up conversation. Dragon Con was like get together of thousands of friends that happens every year. The diversity of attendees was huge but even so there was a very strong feeling of unity, inclusiveness and friendship that I haven’t felt at other conventions. Atlanta itself deserves a big shout-out for how welcoming the city is to the convention attendees, all the locals seems really excited to see all the Congoers and costumes and were so helpful and friendly.
I am already planning for a return trip to Dragon Con hopefully in the next couple of years. If you are hoping to attend a future Dragon Con then I can’t recommend enough how useful all of these resources are and how great it was to make use of them:
The Dragon Con Newbies Group
The Dragon Con Forum
The Dragon Khan Report podcast (a really great podcast, that got me super excited to attend)
The Unique Geek 50 days to Dragon Con Pod Cast (good but too much content to keep up with)
Finally a big thank you to all the volunteers, there were 2200 of them and they did a great job, helping, answering questions, directing and generally being awesome!