I’m assuming that most of the people reading this have at least a couple of Dragon Cons under their belts, but hopefully a few of you out there who are going for the first time, whether that first time is in 2015 or beyond, find this article and find it useful. We’re going to look at a few of the most basic things that most people I know say they wish they knew when they made their first trek to Dragon Con. Hopefully it might be useful advice for making your first Dragon Con a little bit easier and a little bit more enjoyable. Additionally, I’ll be providing a few resource links at the bottom of the article that will help you prepare and maybe even get a better handle on what you’re getting into. Also, hopefully, other people will chip in with good advice in the comments below.
[Upfront disclaimer – I have been volunteering at Dragon Con since 2014]
Okay, let’s address basic physical survival here. This is going to seem almost stupidly obvious, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to let some things slip past you while at your first, second, third or even tenth Dragon Con. Dragon Con offers so much to see and do that it can be overwhelming, and the sensory overload from a first time visit sometimes means time gets away from you in a really big way. Sometimes you will have to make a point to remind yourself to take care of the basics.
#1 – Hydrate
Yeah, I know. It sounds like a basic no-brainer. It’s still high on the lists of advice that a lot of people give out. There’s a good reason for that.
If you’ve been to a smaller convention that was in a hotel or convention center before now, odds are good that you really enjoyed the wonderful air conditioning system as it beat the heat of the world outside of the convention walls. Well, the hotel AC systems give it a valiant effort during Dragon Con, but Dragon Con isn’t exactly a smaller convention.
You’re going to be enjoying the sights and sounds of Dragon Con with somewhere around 65,000 of your new best friends. Even spread out through the multiple-hotel layout of the convention, that’s a lot of people, and that many bodies in enclosed spaces can generate a lot of heat. Then there’s the joy that is Hotlanta itself. Most of the years I’ve gone to Dragon Con the outside temperatures, and you may find yourself going outside more than a few times per day, have been pretty steamy. There’s also been at least one rain day every year where the rain hits only long enough to make the outside world a sauna bath. It’s hotter than you think it is when you’re actually in the thick of it- unless you’re outside at the time knowing just how hot it is and wondering when Hell is going to take its weather back -and you will be sweating more than you think you are at the time you’re doing it.
Look, a part of my regular job has me doing foot patrols in a hot city. I’m typically used to feeling the signals ahead of time for when my body is getting ready to demand a refill on its water levels. At Dragon Con, or any large convention like it, if you’ve never been, it can mess with your senses a little bit. You might not notice that you’ve been sweating quite as much as you actually have until the thirst hits you hard.
Drink. Make a point of it. Carry a water bottle with you and take a sip (or a gulp) every so often. Do it whether you think you’re thirsty or not. Your goal should be a baseline of about 48 oz. a day of water. You’re going to be drinking other stuff along the way I’m sure, so I’m not pushing the 64 oz. thing here, but you want to at least get 48 oz. of water into your system throughout the day. You will feel much better for it.
#2 – Eat
Yeah, again, sounds very basic. It likely is just about anywhere else, but just about anywhere else is not a large convention like Dragon Con. I’ve been an attendee since 2006 and I still sometimes get so caught up in the running and doing that I can have moments where I look down at my watch at 11am before looking at my watch again thirty minutes later and seeing that it’s actually been four or five hours since I looked at the time. Other people will tell you the same thing. It’s really easy to lose track of time trying to keep up with all there is to see and do.
Pack some snacks to take with you. By snacks, I don’t mean the stuff from the average vending machine. Try to avoid the pure junk food snacks and even a lot of the popular meal/protein bars, because a lot of them really are just so much junk with a sweet flavoring and a chocolate coating. Pack some real food in quick snack quantities. Me? I’m an almond person, so I’ll usually have some of those squirreled away in a Ziploc bag. I’d advise against large quantities of dried foods like dried fruits and jerky since that will actually counter some of your hydration needs, but if it’s what works for you then go for it (just maybe in smaller quantities than you usual partake) as it’s better than nothing.
But those are just snacks. You need food. Make time for breakfast. It can be a late breakfast, but get a breakfast into your system sometime in the first few hours that you’ve rejoined the land of the awake and the aware. After that, well… You’re not exactly on a six week mission here. You can skimp a bit during the con without too many ill effects, but try to get in at least one other full meal later in the day.
Fortunately for the con goers at Dragon Con the layout of Dragon Con itself makes that a really easy task to do while on the go. You’ve got more than a few places in the convention hotels where you can grab food and, of course, there’s the Peachtree Center Food Court. Bonus – The food court is physically connected to both the Hyatt and the Marriott by two sky bridges. Nobody calls them sky bridges though. These are the “habitrails” that you’ll hear others make reference to.
But, yeah, try to get in at least two good meals and have some quality carry snacks to nibble here and there throughout the day. You’re going to need it. Unless you’re a one fandom track person, you will be walking a lot. The footprint for Dragon Con is huge, spanning multiple levels of multiple hotels and buildings in downtown Atlanta. You will be walking across large convention floors, up and down stairs, up and down the streets outside, and out and about wherever you might want to go exploring for a late night drink/meal with new friends. When you’re not walking, you’ll be spending a fair chunk of time standing in lines. This will be a substantial part of your Dragon Con experience, and it will kick your ass if you let your blood sugar get lower than the sublevel parking decks under the hotels.
Eat. Eat properly. Make sure you eat. It’s easy to lose track of time and want to skip it because you’ve scheduled yourself for something you want to see. Don’t skip the meals. It will catch up to you. Eat. The better you feel, the more you’ll enjoy it all and the longer you’ll be able to go in a day.
That kind of brings me to something else. It’s not exactly “mental” health, but it’s somewhere in that general area and it can factor in with the meal thing.
#3 – Pace Yourself
I was kind of lucky. My first Dragon Con was still in the three hotel version of Dragon*Con and it was a little over 50% less populated than the present version. You could still blow yourself out by Day #2 if not careful though, and I and others have done so in Dragon Cons past.
Officially, Dragon Con is four days, but it’s not four full days. In that not quite four full days, Dragon Con packs in over 3,000 hours of programming. As mentioned above, that’s 3,000+ hours spread out across a fairly substantial bit of real estate in the center of downtown Atlanta, so you’re looking at guaranteed travel time (the above mentioned walking) in between most of the things you want to see. The simple fact of Dragon Con is that there is no way to see everything you’ll want to see. Resist the urge to try.
It’s a cliché to say it, but it’s absolutely true that Dragon Con is marathon and not a sprint. I and others have tried to do the sprint thing before. I and others have also ended up regretting that choice around about the evening of Day #2.
They’ll hand you a schedule when you pick up your membership badge. Sit down with it and find the highlights that you absolutely feel like you have to see, but spread them out a bit. Find a few things that you think are interesting to fill in some of the gap time between your highlights. Have alternates ready for the things you pick. Leave yourself some downtime.
You’re going to want to do that for several reasons. There will be daily schedule changes that the convention has to make due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control. That’s a good reason to get the app. I’ll get back to that app thing in a bit. Things will be moved and that will sometimes bump times slightly forward or back. Some things might get canceled. Have alternates chosen or use that time for downtime.
By downtime in this discussion, I don’t mean going back to your hotel room. I mean it as you giving yourself the time to leisurely explore other parts of the convention. Yeah, you know what you want to see, but you have no idea what you’ll come across at the convention that you’ve never heard of before but that will become something you’ll want to see. There’s not a single Dragon Con that I’ve been to where I did not discover something new that I had no idea how much I would end up enjoying.
Things, be they panels, performers, or other activities, aren’t the only reason to have a little downtime to explore the scene. There are the other people there as well. You’re going to be mixing and mingling with around 65,000 of your fellow geeks. Give yourself the breathing space to meet people and make some new friends. Other than my first Dragon Con where I ran around like an idiot annoying my wife and trying to do it all while failing miserably at that task, I’ve never walked away from a Dragon Con without making some new friends and connections. Some of the other people showing up at Dragon Con can sometimes be the best part of Dragon Con. Give yourself the time to meet new people and make new friends along with finding new things that may become some of your new favorite things.
#4 – Sleep
Yeah, you will need to sneak some sleep in here and there. It's hard to drag yourself away from the fun, but try to get at least four or five hours in each day. You'll enjoy things more when you're not sleep deprived, and you'll avoid that whole issue where the brain starts having its own really weird and somewhat unique relationship with reality.
#5 – Personal Hygiene
Shower once a day. Really. Shower. It’s necessary. You will be sweating more than you think you are, and body sprays won’t cut it. Everyone will thank you for it. And, hey, if you happen to be single you might end up meeting someone who’ll likely find you much more attractive if you smell a little less on the ripe side.
Wash your hands. Wash your hands when you go to the bathroom. Wash your hands before you eat your main meals. Bring a little travel sanitizer for times in between. I’m not saying you need to act germ phobic, but this will go a long way in helping to reduce the odds of you coming home with con crud.
#6 – Get the App
Watch the Dragon Con website, follow the social media. They will announce when the app is available and tell you how to get it. The app is great.
You can create your personal schedule on the app, it covers everything the newspaper print booklet covers, it, unlike that booklet, covers the daily updates and schedule changes, and it has a very handy search function. It also has a way to connect your schedule with specific friends of your mutual choosing, so you can keep up with others that you come with or meet at the con. It’s also the way to rate events and give feedback. If you really like an event, giving it a positive rating lets the powers that be know that there might be an audience for that again for the next Dragon Con.
#7 – Discover the MARTA
I love that word. Well, technically it’s not a word, it’s an acronym. Either way, I love it.
#7 – Discover the MARTA
I love that word. Well, technically it’s not a word, it’s an acronym. Either way, I love it.
Getting a host hotel is a bit like finding Venus’s arms. Odds are great that you’ll be getting a hotel that will require some level of travel to get to and from the convention hotels. If you’re close enough, walking might not be an issue. If you’re a little farther away, you might be able to catch a shuttle or a cab.
There’s another option for travel though, and it may even help you with hunting for less expensive hotels. That’s the MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority.) It’s the Atlanta area’s (partially) underground rail system. You can find the website here.
We stopped looking for hotels right next to the host hotels some time ago. What we do look for are the hotels with MARTA stations close by. All you have to do is pay a small fee for a temporary pass that will cover your stay in Atlanta. With that pass, you can ride the rails to and from the con with ease all convention weekend.
It helps when on a tighter budget as well. One year we stayed at a hotel outside of the city proper. The cost for the hotel was a lot cheaper than the downtown hotels, but the catch was being something like a 20 minute drive down the road. We would have to fight traffic every day and then also have to find parking downtown every day that didn’t cost on arm and a leg. Not a great thing when you want to have money for the con itself.
Fortunately, the MARTA was there. We did a five minute drive from the hotel parking lot to the MARTA parking lot, a secured and patrolled lot, left our car there for free (some lots have fees) all day, hopped a ride to Five Points station, took one transfer, and got off the MARTA right on Dragon Con’s front door. These days we plan it so that we don’t have to transfer, but it’s not that great of a hassle if you have to.
That front door bit above is important for emphasizing the convenience of the closest station location to the con. If you go to the website and check the map, you’ll see a station named Peachtree Center. Depending on which station exit you take to go up to street level, it will either bring you out basically right across the street from the Hyatt or right up by the entrance of the food court. Depending on the weather, you can either cross the street and walk into the Hyatt or enter the food court and cross over into the host hotels via the habitrails.
The MARTA doesn’t run 24/7, so, if you use it, plan accordingly for getting back to your hotel after late-night events.
***** Resource Links *****
Now, whether you’ve made it this far or just skipped ahead, I give you links that will provide you with a hell of a lot of information in between now and Dragon Con Day #1. Some of these are very good for first timers as they’re specifically about helping Dragon Con newbies, but in all honesty some of the information and updates you’ll find at these links is great info for the newbie and the pro alike. And, hey, at least a few of them are entertaining as hell to boot.
I’m sure you’ve already found some of these, but I’m including them just to be complete about it.
The Facebook Dragon Con Newbies Group
A good Facebook group where you will get an answer to your questions, and no question seriously asked is ever treated like a stupid question by the group.
The ESO Dragon Con Khan Reports (Podcasts)
There’s a lot of useful information in these podcasts. They give updates on the convention and the various guests range from longtime heads of groups like the Facebook Newbies group and the Drop by Dragon Con fitness group all the way up to track heads and spokesmen for the convention itself. Each episode also provides resource links at the ESO website. Also, they’re usually pretty damned entertaining. You can follow the below links to stream or download at their website, or you can go to iTunes and find them under the primary ESO podcast. Do the iTunes option for your listening. Lots of other really cool episodes not related to Dragon Con are in there as well.
The Unique Geek’s 50 Days of Dragon Con (Podcast)
Find them at the link or find them on iTunes. Entertaining, informative, and co-hosted by a longtime Dragon Con track head, the podcast gives you almost daily updates and has traditionally had guests on who can let you in on what’s being planned for the various tracks as well as those who can offer great advice for newbies and veterans alike.
Drop by Dragon Con Facebook Group
This is a great Facebook support/tips group for people who are working at dropping some weight by convention time or just getting their general fitness levels up for the convention.
Four Days at Dragon*Con
Just because it’s so damned fun to watch.
That’s it. I’m out until next week when I’ll have a slightly more fun based Dragon Con article for Needless Things’ run-up to the big event.
Jerry Chandler hates the heat. He really hates walking around in the heat wearing all of his work gear. He needs to hydrate a lot these days. Hey GoT fans, you keep saying Winter is coming, so when exactly is it getting here again?