Dragon Con 2021 - Celebrating 35 Years
Even a pandemic can’t stop the fun
Out of all the fan conventions out there, if someone were to ask me which one they should attend, I would easily recommend Dragon Con. Even if they’d never been to a fan convention before, it would be my number one recommendation. No other convention offers more to its attendees in so many different ways. Take all of the features of any other type of fan convention - anime, comic, gaming con, etc. You get all of that at Dragon Con and more. Panels, guests, vendor hall, artist alley, art show, cosplay, wrestling, costume balls, and even a full blown parade down the streets of downtown Atlanta. It's the ultimate geek gathering.
Dragon Con has been held in Atlanta, GA since 1987, making it one of the oldest conventions of its type. To reach 35 years of age is quite a feat. This convention has seen other conventions come and go, all the while growing to an impressive 85,000 attendees. On top of that, it’s one of the most respected and well operated conventions.
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A Party For Everyone
Dragon Con is known to be a party con and when I talk to people about it I can tell this makes them unsure about attending. I always try to assure them that Dragon Con attendees party responsibly. This convention has the benefit of age and that means many of its volunteers and attendees are more mature. They're adults who know how to put on a convention and how to have a good time. Yes, they drink and make a lot of noise, but it’s all in good fun. Even if you're not a party person it's fun to people watch and take in the atmosphere.
Dragon Con offers more than just fun and entertaining events. It has panels hosted by professionals in their related industries. There are so many panels that they're grouped into categories called "tracks". Let's say you're interested in writing. There's a writing track that has panels hosted by famous and respected authors and publishers. If you're into astronomy, there's a track for that where you can star gaze at night with NASA engineers. There are puppetry panels hosted by Jim Henson's Creature Shop staff. It's like having a bunch of professional mini-conventions nested inside a bigger convention. At Dragon Con you have the opportunity to meet these professionals and learn and build skills around your hobby or career.
The Host Venues
Part of what makes this convention so special is its venues. Dragon Con operates at five host hotels, all within a few blocks of each other. Three of the main hotels are connected by a series of sky bridges, often called “habitrails” by experienced attendees. These hotels are impressive in both their size and architecture. The Marriot Marquis, Hyatt Regency, and Westin Peachtree Plaza were all designed by renowned architect John Portman and feature impressive atriums. The Marriot Marquis’ 470 foot tall atrium is so impressive that it has been a shooting location for a number of productions including the recent Loki series on Disney Plus. Interestingly, a large portion of Atlanta’s downtown core was designed and developed by Portman Architects, including the AmericasMart buildings which house the gaming, vendors, and artist alley.
Cramming 85,000 attendees into these hotels is part of what makes Dragon Con so fun. At times it’s so packed that you can hardly move around. It’s a rather unique and enjoyable experience to be surrounded by so many fellow con-goers. If you were to relocate Dragon Con to the nearby Georgia World Congress convention center you would have a much less crowded, easier to navigate, and perhaps more organized event. It would also kill the vibe. The location is as much the heart and soul of Dragon Con as are the volunteers, staff, and attendees. I really doubt they would ever move it. If anything, they would just cap attendance.
In fact, an attendance cap is exactly what they did for the 2021 event. With the Delta Variant running rampant over Georgia, Dragon Con was limited in attendance to roughly 50%, or 42,000 people. In addition, no day passes were sold for Saturday, which is usually the busiest day. These limitations were noticeable as Saturday night seemed to be less crowded than Friday and Sunday. The hotels and habitrails were much easier to navigate and weren't nearly as crowded as they usually are. Panels were still well attended and even at capacity. Chairs were spaced out more which did reduce overall capacity. I overheard more than one person saying they wished it was like this every year, but I personally enjoy the craziness of so many people in one place. As with almost every other convention, the pandemic forced the 2020 event to be cancelled. I’ve written about this a number of times in other articles. I think they managed to put together a great 2021 event given the situation. Masks were required as well as proof of vaccination, or a negative covid test within 72 hours. There was even an on-site vaccination clinic. I observed that most people obeyed the mask requirement. Every now and then I would see someone without one, but it seemed that they also didn’t have a badge and likely snuck in. Security at the front doors was lax and sometimes you could just walk into the hotels. While the Delta variant was a concern, the assumed high vaccination rate was really the saving grace.
Vendors and Artists
The Vendor Hall is combined with the Comic and Pop Artist Alley. It’s spread out over four floors of the AmericasMart Building 2. While it’s usually quite busy and gets crowded in places, it wasn’t crowded at all when I went. This is once again attributable to the 50% cap. There are vendors here that I don’t see at any other convention I attend. I suppose that’s because I mostly attend anime conventions, but I do wonder where else they table at. You can find all kinds of fun and geeky things like luxury gaming tables from Wyrmwood and high quality lightsaber devices from Ultra Sabers. I noticed that the artist NoFlutter even had a table. There are also some food vendors spread around the building in case you get hungry. Dragon Con has the best art show that I’ve ever seen at any convention. Located in the Hyatt Regency, it features some of the best fantasy type art you’ll find at any convention. Taking photos is strictly prohibited, so I can’t show you anything. You’ll just have to see it for yourself. There is usually a couple of rows of white pegboard with items from the artists up for silent auction. I didn’t see that this year and there were some notable empty spaces due to a reduction of artists in attendance.
The Cost to Attend
The cost to attend Dragon Con is on average with other conventions I attend. Although it’s a five day event, I only attended three days this year. Any more than that and I start to feel really exhausted. Besides, Monday is practically dead with only a small fraction of the attendees sticking around.
|Meals & Groceries||$83.56|
I managed to use airline miles for half of my flights which saved me about $250. The Atlanta airport is a major hub and the busiest airport in America, making it easy to fly there. The local metro system called MARTA is a quick and reliable $3.50 ride with a direct connection to the downtown Peachtree center. Parking in Atlanta can be difficult and I've heard of people having their cars booted (putting those yellow clamps on your tires so you can’t leave without paying an exorbitant fee). Be forewarned. The largest cost was the hotel. With 85,000 attendees on an average year, all of the area hotels fill up. You have to book a year in advance to get a room and you’ll pay a premium. Rooms run $250-400+ per night and they can be hard to get even on a covid-affected year with less attendees. I had a reservation at one of those Airbnb type properties that I found through Booking.com. The price was good and the location was excellent, sitting right behind the Hilton. However, my reservation fell through literally on the first day of the convention. It’s a lesson to me that I will never book this type of property again. They just aren’t reliable, especially during a busy event like Dragon Con. Don’t do it! I was able to book the Sheraton for the okay-ish rate of $315 per night. The con rate is around $265, but the host hotels are notoriously difficult to book. Some of them use a legacy system that gives priority to those who stayed the year before. The hotels which have open booking usually sell out in minutes. If you are thinking of attending Dragon Con I suggest following the Dragon Con Rooms Facebook group. It’s an excellent resource on how to book or transfer a hotel room. Registration for Dragon Con costs between $85 and $100, depending on when you purchase. I was fortunate to receive a press badge this year, which saved me that cost. Remarkably, they sell an “Eternal Membership” which grants you access for as long as the event is held. It currently costs $3500, although I remember it being around $2000 when I first attended in 2016. The only other costs are food and whatever you might buy from vendors. The food is totally up to you. There is a large food court in the nearby Peachtree Center Mall. I recommend Aviva by Kameel. All of the hotels have grab and go stations as well as sit down restaurants. Although there was no wait to be seated, I was told by staff at the Marriott Marquis High Velocity restaurant that it would be an hour before I would be served food. Apparently the pandemic was still wreaking havoc by reducing the number of employees working.
One of the things I love the most about Dragon Con is the variety of cosplay. I see things at this convention that I don't see anywhere else. At anime conventions you generally see just anime, comic, movie, and game characters. At Dragon Con you get oddities like the Andorian Colonel Sanders and obscure characters from books or television series. There are mashups of things you'd never think of and it's great. How about a group of Killer Klowns from Outer Space? Very scary. I remember seeing a group cosplaying a complete set of Star Trek action figures in life-sized retail boxes. It's all of the fun without the pretense of trying to be famous. Thank you to everyone who let me capture them. I wasn't able to get everyone's contact information, so please contact me if you recognize someone.