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How To Dragon*Con

The following should be treated as a cautionary tale by any sci-fi conventioneer

   During Labor Day Weekend in 2009, my wife Isabelle and I decided to attend a science fiction convention in downtown Atlanta.  I knew that since we’d lived in New York, this would probably be a snap (always thought that about doing new things).  We’d once been to a one-day Star Trek Convention at the Javits Center back in 1989.  I may not have seen any celebrities there, but I did buy a cool transporter pad coffee mug and some rubber Spock ears.

 And a tribble.

You see, we’d done the “convention scene” in the craziest city ever; we hoped this could somehow live up to New York and that they’d maybe even have a couple of celebrities in attendance.

Saturday September 5th dawned hazy and muggy.  We got into my car and made the 25-mile trip to the Sheraton Hotel, ignoring Atlanta’s “No Turn Signal” and “Zero Car Length” highway mores.  We knew we had arrived when we saw a line of mostly young people snaking around the Sheraton.  I groaned and we headed into a nearby parking garage.

“Is this the end?  Is this the end? Is this the end?”  Out on the street our repeated queries were met with rightward jerked thumbs by a Vulcan Ambassador, a Transformer, a few regular people (we’ll call them ‘norms’), and what I’m sure was an attempt at Martin Landau’s Commander Koenig character in “Space:1999.”

We found our place and waited and flop sweated and stared at Atlanta’s mid-70’s architecture, all the while inching toward an underground garage entrance.  Someone in front of us had an extra copy of the weekend (um, what?) schedule and gave it to us.  It was 10:30 am. IMG_2364

We leafed through what had to be the world’s flimsiest newsprint booklet with growing excitement (knowing that if we went through it twice, all the ink would be on our hands and it would then fall apart).

“Wow,” Isabelle exclaimed, “There are gonna be a lot of famous people here!”

We picked out 3 possible panels (more on panels a little further down) we wanted to attend, an Apollo 11 Anniversary, a “Firefly” panel, and then something we could both get behind, a “Battlestar Galactica” (the rebooted series) panel with several of the show’s stars and writers!

If the line really picked up we might even be able to sneak (albeit late) into the Kate Mulgrew / Patrick Stewart (Captains!) panel that people were whispering about.  Optimism reigned.

We chose the BSG, and knowing it started at 11:30 am we knew we had plenty….of…time……

“Wait? What’s going on with the line?!”

Having emerged into a basement lobby we were then directed into a ballroom that was FILLED with people.  Roped off in lines a couple of feet apart, these growingly impatient Dragon*Con-ers (I don’t know why they have an asterisk in their name but they do) had no choice but to go left, then right, left, then right, advancing bit by bit toward the registration tables with every lap.  It sucked.

As far as the eye can see

As far as the eye can see

The line moved slowly, but we thought we’d probably still make it to BSG.  We talked to our vertical neighbors about “panels,” parties, and the Dragon*Con (sorry, I know the asterisk is lame but I’m compelled to put it in there) scene in general.

The parties sounded crazy, and since neither my wife nor I drank, we decided we were probably panel people.  Panels, we soon learned, consisted of large groups of fans sitting expectantly in a big room facing a long table with glasses of water and microphones; hopefully with recognizably famous people sitting behind said mikes (though it turned out sometimes they didn’t show up).  A convention uber-nerd would host, thanking everyone and letting the stars warm up the crowd.

Then two lines would form behind improvised microphones on the floor and fans would line up with sometimes creative variations of this one question:

“So, what was it like being in (name of TV show or movie)?!”

    Panelists gamely answered these questions, sometimes while even poking a little fun at the questioner’s costume (like the guy who was wearing only a diaper and a pirate’s hat).

Back in our registration line, we had a lot of time to think (Nicholson Baker could have written a thousand page novel just from the idle thinking generated by the time spent in this line).  The further we got in, the warmer it got, and we realized the AC was broken in this room.  Great.  Also, we were running out of time to see the BSG panel.  I got grumpy and pulled out my iPhone 3G and played Galaga Remix (in between screen freezes) until my battery rapidly ran down.

I then tapped my foot a lot.  My legs hurt.  We were packed in too tight to sit down.

Isabelle seemed to stay somewhat content.  We spent some time reading people’s t-shirts, some of which were hilarious, like the one that gave away spoilers to popular sci-fi and fantasy movies, or the one with the Alderaan weather forecast (Wednesday: 15 thousand degrees –awesome!).photo

By the time we’d officially missed the BSG panel we’d learned our first lesson of Dragon*Con:

Rule #1: You MUST pre-purchase your memberships!

    We realized we weren’t feeling this “buy for the day” thing; plus in conversations with some of the norms we realized we’d missed an entire day (Friday) of really cool stuff and thus another rule formulated in our minds:

Rule #2: You MUST attend on Friday to get your money’s worth!

(Apropos, these rules should be read in a Klingon’s guttural growl)

Dragon*Con is a four-day convention.  We did not know that.  We finally got to the registration table, picked up our badges and found we were able to call ourselves whatever we wanted on them.  I was Carl Kolchak (from “Night Stalker) and Isabelle was “Woodlands.”   We were proud of our choices.

People watching.  The best part.

People watching. The best part.

Having missed 40 minutes of the BSG panel, we knew we could finally sit down and relax somewhere, and people watch (that’s one of the best parts of the Con).  We started to plan our day, and then our weekend, which we now knew ended Monday the 7th.  We debated some choices; “Star Trek” panels predominated because Isabelle and I are both, what do they call them?  Oh, yeah, ‘people who are into “Star Trek.”’

We decided to split up on others: in one instance Isabelle went to a well-stocked writer’s panel and met Charlaine Harris (author of the Sookie Stackhouse books); while I went to a horror panel and met Tony Moran (who played Michael Myers in the original “Halloween”).  That was on the first day, we’d each paid $50 for that day and as far as we were concerned it was well worth it!

Isabelle and Charlaine Harris

Isabelle and Charlaine Harris

Me with Tony Moran from "Halloween"

Me with Tony Moran from “Halloween”


We met up together at the Marriott and excitedly compared notes.  I was wrong to doubt it, this blew New York out of the water and we were having a great time.  By the second day we learned something else we’d need in the future, namely this:

Rule #3:  You MUST plan your movements at least two panels ahead!

OK, I’m not trying to make the rules geeky and arcane so I’ll explain what I meant by that.  There are a lot of crowds, and they only move either as slow drugged out, plodding masses (away from panels), or as hyperactives running in streaming single files (towards panels).  We ended up at the back of several long convention rooms because we failed to understand what the urgency was all about with these people.

We did eventually make it to a BSG panel.

We did eventually make it to a BSG panel.

At the back of these rooms the horizon line is actually in front of the panelists so you have to watch everything on a big TV screen.  Not cool.

It helps to not only know that the event is spread out over 5 hotels; but also that said hotels are, in some cases, blocks apart.

Rule #4: You MUST try to use the skyways.

I believe I finally figured this out by 2011, our third Con, and though Atlanta is no Minneapolis in this regard, there are several skyways connecting the hotels that we should have availed ourselves of.  Using them cuts down on the “dehydration/being run over by Atlanta drivers” equation.

It was exciting bopping around back and forth, but having to pay constant attention in these panels reminded me of being in seminars in college.  So, like I used to back then, I got hungry, then sleepy.  I had a backpack with a couple of Odwalla Bars and my wife and I split them, but that just wasn’t going to cut it.

Rule #5: You MUST locate plentiful food sources and take a break to eat.

And if you can, when you eat, try to be where everyone else is NOT.  Don’t eat at traditional lunchtimes.  If the William Shatner panel is letting out of Centennial Ballrooms I and II at 12:30 try your best to not be anywhere near there and hungry too.  It’s just not worth it.

I personally recommend a late afternoon Lo Mein at the Peachtree Something-or-Other Mall upstairs (I don’t really know the name but I DO know that in Atlanta if I just call it “Peachtree” I’ll have a 74% chance of being correct).

We learned to pay attention and be early and because of that we had a stress-free time.  We got used to sweating a lot while standing in ballroom panel lines that stretched outside and around the block; while odd droplets of water fell on us from the hotel heights.  We met about 11 separate women who were (oddly to us) dressed like the Abby Sciuto character from “NCIS.”

We marshaled our energy by plopping down on hallway floors, memorizing each hotel’s distinctive carpet patterns.   Lines for future panels formed this way too and while sitting there we broke bread with some fantastically geeky people.  Excuse me, our people.

 Now, let’s fast forward 3 years:

 Isabelle and I have just wrapped up our fourth consecutive Dragon*Con and here’s how much we’ve learned and how things have changed.

We have just brazenly pre-purchased our tickets for 2013, ignoring the coming Mayan Prophesy and its resultant cash refund impossibility probability.  Isabelle and I learned at the end of our first Con that it’s a lot cheaper that way too.  Plus, you can get out of any uncomfortable Labor Day weekend scenarios you might envision with friends or family.  Because, you know, that happens a lot.

We attended all four days and arrived early each day, having a mellow breakfast while finalizing each day’s plans.

This was cool, seeing the "I Dream of Jeannie" panel

This was cool, seeing the “I Dream of Jeannie” panel

We’d learned two years earlier at the 2010 Con that there’s a thing called the Walk of Fame, where you can actually walk up to your phaser and blaster toting heroes (or Lou Ferrigno) and say hi or get an autograph.  Oh, that reminds me of the last rule:

 Rule #6: You MUST realize that there are cool things like autograph rooms.

 If you see a bunch of people mysteriously heading to a certain floor and you have a few minutes, follow them, it might be worthwhile.

Leaving the 2012 Con, I marveled at the incredible 4 year evolution of some unnamed instinct of my wife’s.  I can best relate it by conveying to you the image of a meerkat poking her head above her hidey-hole; sharp, alert, cunning.  She can read crowds.

Every year she’s learned to do things a little better, she’s honed some ability to tell where massive ballroom panel lines are about to form, and when.  If she gets there too early and risks getting run off by the Dragon*Con security forces (yeah they have them, like line stewards), she can apparently make herself invisible as they pass right by her, walkies blaring.  I’ve seen it…. well, I’ve heard about it on my cell phone while I’m in an unending line at Starbucks.  And I know that it’s true because when I arrive, my wife’s at the head of a line that goes out the door all the way to Buckhead, and she’s just perkily chatting with a steward.

All weekend long, we’d brought enough food and water, met some great people, norms and cosplayers (those in costumes) alike.  We gathered a few autographs and took a lot of pictures.  Pictures, that reminds me, oh now I’m really going on, but here’s a bonus rule:

 Bonus Rule: You MUST not (please) film the whole panel with your tablet.

This is because you block the view of everyone else behind you, and you’re going to just download the film to your computer and never watch it anyway.  Plus, like everybody’s dad says, “If you’re filming it, (son or daughter), you’re not really there.”

Dragon*Con’s (wait, maybe the asterisk means the Con’s on steroids – think Barry Bonds) got horror and sci-fi and fantasy.  It’s got a working Tardis on the second floor of the Sheraton and a ton of people wearing those fuzzy “Firefly” toppers.  It’s got people dressed like Cullens, Andorians and lacerated Tauntauns.  It’s got it all.  My wife and I make a point to never miss it.

And speaking of photography, sometimes I see something that HAS to be photographed.  The costumes are that inventive.  So I’ll leave you with this, the scariest thing I’ve ever seen at Dragon*Con (sorry it’s blurry).  Sitting in a panel room one day in 2010, I glanced right and what I saw disturbed me deeply.  So I snapped this shot.

Something really scary about that guy with the mustache....

Something really scary about that guy with the mustache….

Hopefully it didn’t disturb you as much as it did me.

Well, that’s all, guys; maybe Isabelle and I will see you there one day, but book your hotel early or you’ll end up about 12 miles from the venue.  Don’t forget your camera, some snacks and a Buddha-like patience when it comes to lines.

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