DragonCon is the behemoth of fandom conventions in the southeastern United States. Four days of non-stop geekdom across downtown Atlanta, GA, filled with over 50,000 fellow fans. On DragonCon’s “What’s New in 2013?” page, it bills itself on its website as hosting “over 3,500 hours of non-stop programming, concerts, a film festival, the South’s largest costume contest, and the largest Art Show in all of fandom.” It even has its own parade marching through downtown Atlanta. In short, it’s a big deal.
With so many people, guests, events, and lines, lines, lines, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Here’s hoping we can assuage any anxieties and make sure you have a good time.
(This one’s long, so brace yourselves.)
As of this posting, pre-registration for DragonCon is $130 for all four days, and you can pre-register until August 16. After then, it’s still $130 at the door for all three days, with cheaper rates after each day. It is a pricey con to attend, but if this year converts you into a DragonCon fan, plan early and pre-register. The earlier you pre-register, the cheaper it will cost, with its cheapest being at the convention itself for the next year.
The convention is stretched across five convention hotels: Hyatt Regency Atlanta, Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Hilton Atlanta, Sheraton Atlanta, and Westin Peachtree Plaza. All are within walking distance, and three (the Hyatt, Marriott, and Hilton) are connected by skybridges that let attendees bypass the outdoors. Even still, that’s a lot of ground to cover, so wear comfortable shoes.
Speaking of hotels, if you’re just now looking for a hotel room, you might find yourself out of luck. DragonCon host hotels often sell out the same day of going on sale, sometimes within minutes. Nearby hotels don’t last long either. All the more impressive considering that these host hotels are some of the largest in the region, with the Marriott Marquis having 1,600 hotel rooms! If you have a room, you’re everyone’s friend. If not, time to ask around. You can even take a chance on DragonCon’s surprisingly active LiveJournal community, where room space and carpooling are often the topics at hand.
(For some general tips when attending a hotel, my friend Josh shared a very informative Reddit post on hotel basics.)
EDIT: For newbies and veterans alike, the Vendor Halls have been moved out of the host hotels and into the Atlanta Convention Center at AmericasMart, which can be accessed via breeze way from the Westin. Thanks Cole for the catch!
It’s difficult to go four days without eating, so plan your meal breaks. For quick and relatively cheap meals, look no further than the mall food court. The Mall at Peachtree Center, connected to the Hyatt and the Mariott Marquis via skybridges, has a generic mall food court. All the usual fast food places you’d expect to find at any mall are here, with prices generally matching other mall food courts too. These restaurateurs are pros at the DragonCon game too, staying open much later than their usual listed hours to catch that DragonCon night life. Late night Dairy Queen has been a life saver.
Still, eating out all weekend can be costly. Save some cash and bring food. Non-refrigerated options like fruit, granola bars, jerky, and pudding are good bets. If you are staying in a hotel, check to see if it has a mini-fridge or microwave for even more options. You can also bring a cooler and and use the hotel’s ice machine for refrigerated options like milk, yogurt, cheeses, and meats. Occasionally, I get lucky rooming with a friend who has a plug-in cooler that functions like a mini-fridge.
Also keep in mind that this is summer in the South. That means heat and probably high humidity. Beat the heat and stay hydrated. Bring a water bottle, and use the convention’s water stations and fountains scattered throughout for easy refills.
As the evening approaches, the hotel bars open, and congoers break out their unmarked containers and Gatorade bottles filled with, well, not Gatorade. If you don’t plan on drinking alcohol, skip the next two paragraphs. If you do plan on drinking, be smart about it with a couple of tips.
Don’t accept anything to drink from anyone you don’t know and didn’t watch make. Actual bartenders are fine. So are usual drinking buddies. Random guy giving samples from his “potion bottle,” not so much. Most people are good, but don’t take the chance.
Also, to reiterate an earlier point, eat food and hydrate often. Don’t drink on an empty stomach, and make sure you have plenty of water before, in between, and after drinks. Alcohol exacerbates malnutrition, and dehydration makes you sicker quicker.
For the non-drinkers, keep an eye on your friends who do drink. If they need to be cut off, be a pal and do it for them. They may not have had the good fortune to read this article.
Now that you’re there, what to do? Good question. As I mentioned in the beginning, DragonCon offers over 3,500 hours of programming. This ranges from big events, fan panels, contests, workshops, gaming, vendors, artists, and more. If you’re bored at DragonCon, something’s wrong.
Programming at DragonCon is divided into about 38 different “tracks” – categories based on similarly-themed content. Whatever you’re interested in – from comics to cartoons, board games to digital, from podcasting to puppetry, from conspiracies to costuming, from Trek to Tolkien and more – it’s there.
When you get the event schedule, take a break and review it. When it goes live online or in the mobile app, download it before the show if possible. If you can’t get a copy until you arrive at the show, sit down for a few minutes and break our the highlighter to pick your favorite events. Find your must-see events, the ones with that one guest you absolutely have to see, and plan to be in line well before the panel (hours before depending on the guest). Also pick some that simply catch your fancy. It’s ok to try events and leave if it’s not your thing, but try whatever piques your interest. You’re at the con to experience a highly concentrated dose of geekdom, so expose yourself to as much as possible.
With hundreds of guests, there’s bound to be someone you want to see. If you’re lucky, it’ll be a lesser-known author, artist, or some such person with a small enough following that you can actually interact with them. Or it can be William Shatner or John Barrowman, and you’ll have to wait for hours for a signature or to sit in the back of his Q&A. I’ve noticed this year has a surprising number of Power Rangers, with Jason David Frank, Walter Jones, and Karan Ashley. Even a Doctor or two (or specifically five and seven).
If you want an autograph, plan to pay for it. Many guests charge for autographs. Prices vary, usually based on notoriety. Don’t look down on charging for autographs. DragonCon doesn’t typically pay guests to come to its event, and even those very few it does, part of that contract usually includes guarantees from autograph fees. While a lot of them enjoy seeing their fans, they also have to make up for missing their paying day job. Don’t want to pay? No biggie. Just attend their Q&As and other events, and don’t expect a signature.
Most guests do their signings in DragonCon’s “Walk of Fame” – a large ballroom set aside for guests to man their booth and schedule their signings. These schedules are published at the con and are subject to change. Some guests will be in more demand than others, meaning longer line. I’ve only been in there once just to look around, and it can be hectic for some guests and slow for others. You can probably find artist and comic guests in the Comic and Pop Artist Alley, and they’ll probably sign anything you buy from them.
If you get the opportunity, be respectful when meeting any guests. Some of them are really busy, having to meet several of us in quick succession, so be mindful of their time. Some also don’t like physical contact, not unreasonable considering how many germs are likely flying about, so don’t get offended when one refuses a handshake. If you get a meaningful personal experience from the encounter, all the better, but if not, don’t feel too bad. There’s still so much of the convention to enjoy.
As long as this article is, it’s just a starting point for what might be a spectacular weekend. DragonCon is one of my favorite conventions, and as great as the events and the guests are, those aren’t why. It’s one of the highest concentrations of fellow geeks in the Southeast, with so many friends I get to see here that I don’t at any of the other cons I attend. It’s a four-day party with some of the greatest people I know, and I hope it will be the same for you.
Are you going to DragonCon 2013? Did I leave anything out? Have any questions?
Leave your answers and thoughts in the comments below!
(Also, if you need to know what you should take to DragonCon, see my Convention Packing Guide.)