Three Thoughts After Our First Dragon Con

Dragon Con Banner!

The start of Atlanta’s annual Dragon Con parade. Zillions more photos to come once I figure out some way to narrow them down to the best 200 or so.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

For years we’ve been telling friends in other states that we’d one day do Atlanta’s Dragon Con, one of the largest conventions in America that isn’t in California or New York. We’ve been in Atlanta, but we hadn’t really done Atlanta. Hence this year’s vacation, in which we’re aiming for a double proficiency in Atlanta tourism and over-the-top Dragon Con goodness…

I’m typing this on Saturday night upon the conclusion of our virgin Dragon Con experience — two solid days of convention awesomeness plus a three-hour prologue on Thursday. We’re exhausted and disappointed we can’t stay longer, but we’re coming away with hundreds of photos to sort, a bit more reading matter to add to my collection, four new jazz-hands photo-ops to add to that collection, new memories to savor and share in the days and years ahead, and a wider basis for comparison against the Midwest cons we regularly attend. (Not counting the two we had to skip in order to work D*C into our schedule.)

Before I collapse into unconsciousness in preparation for the 8½-hour drive home Sunday, I need to jot down three key takeaways while they’re still fresh in mind and while I’m still riding high on my happy post-D*C buzz.

1.

Dragon Con is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.

Over 80,000 attendees have to create their itineraries among 5,000+ activities tightly spread across five days and seven facilities, nine if you count the two nearby food courts (unaffiliated yet accommodating). D*C may be smaller than San Diego Comic Con, but it’s nonetheless massive and daunting to newcomers. Longtime MCC readers know Anne and I have done more than our share of Midwest cons, but those are typically confined to a single convention center. With the exception of Gen Con (whose sprawl we’ve never had to traverse at length), multi-site cons are like an extreme environment by comparison.

But there’s an upside to that expanse. By midday Saturday I found myself reminded of video games.

My favorite game milieus — Final Fantasy, Borderlands, Ratchet & Clank, et al. — comprise numerous levels across many continents, worlds, or dimensions. The game’s plot requires the player to navigate each level all the way through at least once. The initial exploration can be long and awkward and require more than one try if the player keeps screwing up. Sometimes the player has to undergo an encore run later to pick up plot details that were missed or not ready the first time around. Often the game includes optional side quests and other errands that can be completed within those same levels to earn more points, better weapons, or other, bigger perks. After so many repeat runs (sometimes ad nauseum) the player eventually memorizes all the levels, knows where all the good stuff is hidden, can veer around more quickly on subsequent playthroughs, and, if they’re feeling generous, will share that knowledge with other players who haven’t yet gotten their bearings.

Dragon Con was a lot like that. The more we learned our way around its levels, the more rewarding our experience got.

As some players do, it helped that we took a tutorial before the big game. On Thursday D*C offered official tours, guided by a seasoned veteran who show rookies the general layouts of each hotel, leads them through the tunnels that connect the locales at disparate stories across downtown Atlanta’s steep landscape, and provides a few tips that would come in handy later when least expected. Apropos of gaming, the most useful tool at our disposal was literally a free walkthrough. We appreciated that and consequently never got lost once in any of the host hotels or the main food court on Friday or Saturday.

(Figuring out where fans were supposed to line up for the larger panels was not remotely that simple. Very much a different story for a future entry.)

DCTV!

While waiting for panels to start, attendees can enjoy preshow entertainment courtesy of the eminently enjoyable Dragon Con TV.

2.

About that aforementioned “5,000+ activities” figure: developed over the course of 32 years, D*C’s infrastructure and support systems across multiple fandoms is unparalleled and unlike anything we’ve ever seen. We had no hope of attending even 0.1% of all the possibilities listed in their squarebound official program, but I love that the D*C ecosystem is sufficiently gargantuan to facilitate and foster them.

It leaves me all the sadder and angrier that all our other cons pale so wanly in comparison when it comes to featuring events beyond the nominal comic-con basics of celebs, artists, and exhibit hall. We once saw fans press a particular Chicago con on this point — a con much older and formerly larger than D*C, mind you — when their three-day event list barely filled two double-spaced pages. As I recall, the official response was that the con would love to have more events, but that in their mind it was up to the fans to think up, design, oversee, and promote more events so that the con could list them accordingly. Basically, if a given con didn’t have enough to do, that was the fans at fault, not the con.

If I were to take that exchange at face value, I’m meant to accept that Atlanta geeks can beat up Midwest geeks. Or that Atlanta has cornered the market on geeks who excel at professional, big-city event planning.

I don’t have a satisfying conclusion for this bullet point. It’s just…I dunno, frustrating food for thought.

Blue Card Button!

A new button for my con bag. A kind gesture from another fan.

3.

As I’ve shared in past entries, I’m an introvert who’s absolutely terrible at networking (and sometimes at basic human friendship) and who has very, very, very, very few connections to other fans online, at least compared to the vast clubs, cliques, and communities we’ve seen gathering at nearly every con we attend. Anne and I enjoy our con experiences together as a cheerfully married couple, but our connections to other fans rarely solidify or extend beyond the occasional invigorating chats while standing in lines. Sometimes that’s due to a combination of our individual weirdnesses and our enforcement of certain personal boundaries. But not always.

Earlier in the week I made the mistake of depressing myself by contemplating the possibility of spending three days in abject silence at an amazing colossal con among 80,000 other folks — at least, like, five or ten of whom must surely share at least two or three of our sensibilities? Maybe even, I dunno, four whole sensibilities? In that moment of self-inflicted insecurity I got pretty unexcited at the prospect of three days alone in a crowd. I mastered that form of discouragement at an early age and would totally love to shake it off before I turn 50, shortly after Black Panther 2‘s release date.

While that prophecy did come true for some hours of our D*C weekend, we can at least say that Thursday was much more upbeat and promising. We arrived at the Sheraton Atlanta shortly after 1 p.m. to pick up our badges from the registration ballroom. Per one of D*C’s several long-standing traditions, attendees who pre-register months in advance are mailed a distinctive blue postcard that must be brought to the show and traded in for weekend badges and lanyards. Fans who remember to bring their blue postcards and photo IDs will find their pickup takes a few quick, efficient moments, as I understand it. I’m proud to boast we did our part.

Unfortunately due to a confusing confluence of a corner barker who couldn’t enunciate while yelling and a severe shortage of blue duct tape for clearly marking the proper path (and possibly other issues prior? no idea), we found the badge pickup line was overlong and wrapped around three of the hotel’s four sides. We’d been told badge pickup after lunch would be a breeze. It went more like badge pickup at any other con. We weren’t offended, merely surprised at our 45-minute wait.

It may have been longer than that, but I lost track of time. We joined the line alongside another couple with far more D*C experience. The gracious young lady of the two gave us more con pointers and activity recommendations. We compared notes with our own conventioning backgrounds. We segued to more fannish matters including but not limited to Star Trek, cosplay, and the old-school joy of pen and paper. She also gave us each mementos: small buttons shaped exactly like the distinctive blue postcard.

It’s cool to see a con inspire that level of loyalty or con-specific creativity. It’s also cool that a fan casually reached out to us, made us feel more welcome, and put us at ease by means of our favorite form of convention networking: a line-chat.

So of course we forgot to exchange names. But we owe sincere thanks to the anonymous blue-card-button-maker for helping us walk away from our very first hour of Dragon Con with a great first impression and higher hopes for the fun times ahead.

And for the record: Dragon Con was astoundingly fun. Coming soon: a plethora of D&C photo galleries! But first, we have 500 miles to drive back before we share.

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