One of the most magical times of the year is almost upon us, the occurrence of Dragon Con! I can't speak for most people, but this convention is the highlight of my year, and I save up for the entire year to head to Atlanta over the Labor Day weekend and have a ton of fun with other geeks, nerds, gamers, and dorks. I've been attending Dragon Con since 2008, and I've picked up a few tricks and tips over that time. The convention can be overwhelming to new people, and even those that are regulars can find themselves nonplused as the crowds grow bigger with every year. To offer some help, I humbly offer this Dragon Con Survival Guide.
The first order of business is preparation. My brother and I go to Dragon Con together, and we spent our formative years spending long summer vacations with our dad as we travelled across America in a pickup truck pulling a fifteen foot trailer. We were normally on the road by 7am, so preparation has become ingrained in our being. First off, bring all the normal necessities, such as clothing (include extra), toiletries, money for buying goodies, a notebook, pens, and some general medicine (aspirin, bandages, etc) in case of emergencies. Also do not forget to bring your blue Dragon Con card to show that you've already bought a membership. I would also bring a backpack, a large book to put autographed pictures in (to protect them), an umbrella, and a raincoat. If you have room in your vehicle, bring a cooler chest or two with some food. There are plenty of places to eat around Dragon Con, but you can save quite a bit of money if you bring some fixings for sandwiches, as well as some snacks and drinks. My brother and I bring two large cooler chests with about three cases of soda, bottled water, lots of snacks, food, and paper plates and towels. We refill the cooler chests with ice taken from the ice machines found in every hotel.
Our next part of our Dragon Con Survival Guide is checking in once you reach Atlanta. I always recommend getting to town on Thursday before the con officially starts. I would recommend showing up at around 2pm or so. Some hotels will allow you to check in at that time, but others may make you wait to around 3pm. Either way, you can almost guarantee yourself a parking spot at the hotel if you show up early. It can be quite miserable to be forced to find a parking garage blocks away to store your car rather than at the hotel. Showing up earlier also helps to beat the frantic rush of con goers later in the evening and on Friday. A quick note on checking out: if you're in one of the host hotels, expect an hour to get a porter up to your room on Monday as it will be crazy due to everybody leaving at the same time.
Another benefit of getting to Atlanta on Thursday is that you can pick up your con badges that day and not miss any of the convention. Dragon Con has done a great job of moving you through the line quickly. When we first attended, the wait time was three to four hours, but now it can be done in about fifteen to twenty minutes. Once you have your badge, make sure you grab the glossy convention book AND the convention schedule booklet. They may be in separate locations (as happened to my brother last year!). My brother and I first look at the schedule that day as we consider it part of the fun anticipating what the events are, but if you wish to do otherwise, you can look them up early on the Dragon Con website or by using their app.
I would also recommend walking around a bit on Thursday to get a layout of the hotels. There are skyways that connect a few of the hotels and the mall where the food court is located. It's quite handy to know about all the various paths that you can take to reach a destination.
Dragon Con App
If you have a smart phone, you need to download the Dragon Con app and use it. It has the full schedule included, but the main benefit is that notices will be sent out in the morning of any changes or cancellations. Always check the app to see if your panel is still going on. You can also pick up paper copies of any changes at the host hotels. The app also contains all the maps of the various hotels and their interiors. I would also download an easy to use map, such as the one below, to give you a quick overview of the overall area where the con is held. With the convention encompassing five hotels, it can become somewhat confusing.
Our next bit in our Dragon Con Survival Guide is planning. There are literally hundreds of panels with fun things to do the entire weekend. Many shows and actors will have multiple panels. Make a plan of which panels you're interested in seeing. Of critical importance is to have some backup panels ready in case one particular panel is full and you cannot get in. Make sure that those panels are in the same hotel or in an adjacent one. Also make sure you give yourself time to relax during the day. It's best to pace yourself so you don't burn yourself out. You can ignore this advice if you're young and have tons of stamina. As I'm 45 and fat, I can't party all day and night without suffering some serious consequences.
Now our Dragon Con Survival Guide switches to having fun at the convention itself. The first thing to remember is to wear comfortable shoes. You will be walking...a lot. The five hotels are spread out a bit. I would carry an umbrella and a rain coat (I use a poncho) as it can begin raining quite suddenly. Keep yourself hydrated as Atlanta in summer is extremely hot and humid. I grew up in south Florida, so I'm used to this climate. For those of you who are not, I would recommend a hat to keep the sun off and carry a bottle of water. All of the panel rooms have water coolers in them, so you can refill your bottle.
Some panels will be incredibly crowded. If your panel is a hot trend currently, you may want to consider getting in line right after the earlier panel begins. All the panels at Dragon Con last and hour with a half-hour break in-between so the volunteers can clear the room. If you show up at the last minute, wait until those in line are funneled in before you head in. Unless the volunteer at the door tells you that the room is definitely full and, therefore, closed, then stick around. I've had volunteers tell me that the room was most likely full and I would not get in. This happened last year at the Robocop panel, so I went to another panel instead. My brother walked in five minutes after the panel started, and the room was only half full. Needless to say, my rage was great.
When planning your panels, give yourself time to travel from one panel to another. Getting from one hotel to another can take any where from five to twenty minutes, depending upon the distance and the crowds. The skyways can be a great way to travel between hotels, but they can become insanely clogged as well, especially between the Marriott and the Hyatt. Check out the crowd before you commit. Some times it can be quicker to descend down to street level and just cross the street. Most hotels have a good layout, such as the Marriot, Sheraton, and Hyatt. The worst hotel is the Westin, which I think was designed by Satan. The layout of that particular hotel is abysmal, with elevators that don't run all the way down to the lobby, forcing you to take the stairs/escalator in addition to using the elevators. The area to form a line for panels is tiny, so expect a line for a popular panel to snake up the circular stairs for a few levels.
Elevators deserve their own paragraph in our Dragon Con Survival Guide. Taking an elevator is always an adventure. If you're just going up or down a single floor, use the stairs or escalator to ease congestion. There are plenty of people with disabilities that need to use the elevator. If you do take the elevator, always add ten minutes to your travel time just to be safe. It does not matter if the elevator is going up or down, if there is space for you to squeeze in, then GET IN THE ELEVATOR. While the ride may be longer if the elevator is going in the opposite direction, it beats waiting with the throngs of humanity that are all fighting like Mad Max to get onto them. Elevators are always crowded, so if you ever come across one that's empty or a half-full, thank your lucky stars. As for using the escalators, give yourself some space between yourself and the next person. There's always a stupid idiot who stops as soon as they step off and start looking around, which can cause some serious accidents as a whole escalator full of people are either coming up or down on them. Last year, I had to yell loudly at a few people to get them moving. Protect yourself going up and down them, especially at night when it gets more crowded and more cosplayers are out, increasing the number of people rubbernecking.
On Saturday morning, there's the official Dragon Con parade. This parade is a great spectacle and well worth watching. If you plan on watching it, get there early (at least an hour early) to have any chance of getting a decent spot. About half the locals of Atlanta show up to watch the parade, so the entire parade route will be completely packed at least thirty minutes before the parade even begins. If you're trying to get to a panel instead of watching the parade, you'll need to make a wide detour to escape the crowds. DO NOT try to use the subterranean transit system at that time as it will be insanely packed. Also note that the area in front of the Marriott will likely be closed off if that's where the parade ends (it did last year). That means that you would have to walk all the way around the hotel and come in through the rear entrance.
As for autographs, allow yourself twenty to thirty minutes minimum to get an autograph. The amount that people charge has risen every year. Last year the average was around $40, and I expect that to go up this year. I always recommend leaving a panel time open every day to walk through the autograph room. Actors will sometimes be away at panels or attending some other event or photo shoot, so multiple passes through the autograph room (called the Walk of Fame) may be necessary to snag your intended autographs. The dealers' room is now in Americas Mart, which gets very crowded. I carry a book in my backpack to store my autographed pictures, and I then transfer those to another book I keep in my hotel room to protect them and keep them straight and undamaged. My brother puts his in a binder of page protectors. If you plan on buying artwork, you may want to carry a tube to put them in.
Lastly, make sure you have your badge at all times. You will need it to get into the panels, and you'll need it to enter the host hotels in the evening. In the past, a lot of locals or people visiting the area (but staying at other hotels) would crash the convention to drink, party, and make fun of the Dragon Con attendees. You have to remember that Labor Day weekend has a Nascar race, several college football games, and God knows what else going on, so there are a ton of non-Dragon Con people in town. The hotels do a good job of keeping those rowdies out, which greatly eases congestion. I would point out that the Atrium level in the Marriott will always be packed, especially in the evenings. There are plenty of cosplayers at Dragon Con, but they really come out at night. That's the best time to snap some pictures (after asking permission) and seeing the incredible variety of costumes that people have created.
My last bit of advice in my Dragon Con Survival Guide is to have fun. There are hundreds of panels covering a wide variety of topics, such as sci-fi, fantasy, literature, steampunk, puppets, post-apocalypse, American Sci-Fi Classics (my personal favorite), and lots more. Strike up a conversation with those you're next to and make some new friends. There are small concerts during the day and major ones at night. I always recommend catching the main costume contest on Friday night, but there are a number of other ones as well during the convention. If you're up to it, there are plenty of balls and parties going on as well. Just remember to pace yourself.
Finally, I would add being polite to your fellow attendees and the stars attending Dragon Con. I've written a comprehensive guide to convention etiquette Part One and Part Two as well as a more detailed guide on convention planning. I hope that this Dragon Con Survival Guide helps you out and makes the convention a little bit easier to attend. Hope to see you there!
Jeff Francis has been a lifelong geek, be it for toys, comics, games, Star Trek, D&D, classic horror, or Doctor Who. He once owned a game shop for over a decade and has been an online gaming journalist for over seven years by the moniker of Jeffprime. You can visit his personal website at Starbasegeek.com to read more of his mad ramblings.