An international crowd of over 70,000 people packed downtown Atlanta to experience Dragon Con over Labor Day weekend. The annual sci fi, fantasy and gaming extravaganza, which was celebrating its 29th consecutive year, featured more than 400 guests from film, TV, comics, literature and other media forms.
Before last weekend, I hadn’t been to a con since Toronto’s Fan Expo, then known as the Canadian National Expo, in 2002. But as a new transplant to Georgia, I simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity to geek out at Dragon Con, which claims to be the world’s largest multi-media pop culture convention. So, armed with a press badge and a comfy new pair of Converse All Star sneakers, I boldly ventured toward Atlanta.
I was warned that parking is nearly impossible and outrageously priced around the five massive hotels that host Dragon Con. To avoid this, I took advantage of Atlanta’s MARTA subway system, which delivered me into the heart of the action each day. It was on one of these packed trains that I observed a 30-ish “Han Solo” holding a Millennium Falcon replica–painstakingly carved from Styrofoam–in one hand and two plastic X-Wing Fighters in the other as he stood in the aisle. Each time the car lurched into a station, Han struggled to balance his ships and stay upright. A seated passenger offered to hold his precious cargo for him, but Han insisted, “No one touches my ships.” Against all odds, Han and the Millennium Falcon made it safely to the Peachtree Center station, and we both exited into a sea of cosplayers so vast that security had to limit the amount of people allowed on the escalators to prevent them from breaking down.
The weekend’s main event was the Dragon Con Parade, which is Atlanta’s largest annual parade. This year, Star Trek‘s Nichelle Nichols served as the grand marshal, leading over 3,000 zombies, superheroes, villains, Muppets and tricked out cars down the .9 mile parade route. I wish I could report more about this awesome event, but I was due at a press conference with Arrow‘s Katie Cassidy, and my primary concern was crossing the parade route to get to the interview room. The cosplayers were a multicolored blur as I dashed two blocks out of my way in the Atlanta heat to find an unblocked intersection to cross over to the Marriott Marquis. I made it to the interview with one minute to spare, collapsing in the back row of chairs lining the tiny room. As I attempted to catch my breath and stem the flow of sweat pouring off my brow, Cassidy strolled in looking casually stunning in jeans and a Flash t-shirt. She told us that she had just finished a grueling morning workout and apologetically waved a hand up and down her body, saying, “This is me somehow getting ready in only 20 minutes.” Meanwhile, a fellow reporter looked at my flushed, gasping form with the panicked expression of a man who feared he may be forced to perform CPR at any moment.
After I recovered, I wandered about admiring the cosplayers I missed in the parade. The amount of artistry that went into some of the costumes was truly amazing. Everyone from the Tenth Doctor to Return of the Jedi‘s Oola the Slave Girl to The Walking Dead‘s Daryl Dixon was seen milling through the delighted crowds. I also encountered a huge gathering of Deadpool devotees, who raucously chanted and mugged for cameras before starting a giant, red conga line that wound up the escalators of the Marriott atrium.
According to Media Relations Director Dan Carroll, Dragon Con prides itself on being the ultimate “fan con.” Instead of being a media event where studios unveil news and trailers–à la San Diego Comic-Con–Dragon Con is billed as a massive party where fans and guests mingle and interact. Carroll said that some guests view it as the “vacation con” on their schedule, booking blocks of hotel suites and inviting lucky attendees up to party. Being dependent on MARTA trains (which inexplicably end service at 1 a.m.) to return me to my car, I was unable to check out much of the con’s legendary nightlife over the three days I attended. However, I encountered enough bleary-eyed convention attendees and guests in the daylight to confirm boozy fun was being had by all.
As for the panels, two of the biggest draws were the casts of Arrow, who elicited Beatles-on-Ed-Sullivan-level shrieks from the audience–and Lost Girl, who were giddily celebrating a reunion nearly a year after the show’s production ended. The con’s laid-back atmosphere was apparent at these events as well, as several actors waltzed onstage with beer bottles and cocktails, answering fan questions with loose postures and easy smiles. The thirst for all things Arrow was so great that Vegas-sounding shows “Stephen Amell LIVE!!” and “John Barrowman LIVE!!” were offered in addition to the cast panels. I must admit that seeing Barrowman dance around in a dress and heels wasn’t on my bucket list, but now having witnessed it, I acknowledge it should have been.
Other Dragon Con guests included Star Wars‘ Peter Mayhew, Battlestar Galactica‘s Edward James Olmos, geek superstar Felicia Day, Doctor Who and Guardians of the Galaxy alum Karen Gillan, Big Bird puppeteer Caroll Spinney, and Kermit the Frog Muppet performer Steve Whitmire. A trip through the con’s “Walk of Fame”–which let fans nab celebrity autographs for $40 and selfies for $20–proved that Day, Gillan, and Lost Girl‘s Anna Silk were in particularly high demand. Despite the crush of humanity, organizers kept things moving rather quickly and fans seemed so thrilled to meet their favorites that there wasn’t a bad mood to be found.
The only downside of the weekend was my failure to pack hand sanitizer in my gear bag. I washed my hands frequently, but my sporadic fastidiousness was no match for the germs of 70,000 con attendees. My weekend was cut short by a scorching sore throat and fever–the symptoms of a virus experienced con-goers affectionately call “con crud”–that left me huddled in bed on the fourth day of the event. I regret not getting the opportunity to check out the huge gaming rooms, the comic book art displays, the steampunk panels, and even the filking room. But next year, I will load up on vitamins, bathe myself in anti-bacterial gel, and do Dragon Con all over again.