Draggin’ On: DragonCon ’06
I have always had a standing rule about not attending shows outside of my native Florida. It’s not a bias against other states, it’s just that I have always found that the expense and travel involved always negated any positive benefit and the local shows are decent enough. This year I broke that rule at the request of my friend Richard Blair who not only wanted to attend Dragoncon to see what all the fanfare was about, but also wanted to introduce his son Patrick to a big time convention. Wise father that he is, Rich enlisted professional convention attendees Byron Rocher and I to ensure that there was absolutely no way this trip could turn out dull!
To those familiar with science fiction and fantasy conventions, Dragoncon is no stranger. According to the publicity, it is the largest show of its kind in the Untied States. Boasting an attendance of some 20,000 fans and over 500 guests, if there is a larger show, I don’t want to see it! Over the four days surrounding the Labor Day weekend, Dragoncon commandeers three large hotels in downtown Atlanta, Georgia. For this one weekend, the even normally impressive Marriott, Hilton, and Hyatt hotels are absolutely littered with the trapping of fandom. Nowhere else in this galaxy will you find a platoon of storm trooper marching down the street followed by the Ghostbuster’s Ecto-Car, the Batmobile, and Mickey Rooney!
We piled into a rental car and headed out of Jacksonville Friday evening with the intention of a late arrival and a fresh start on Saturday morning. After the six hour ride to Atlanta, interrupted only briefly for roadside chow, we were ready to crash as soon as we checked in. Fortunately, Rich’s friend James White had arrived early that day with his own crew and committed the entire layout of the con to memory! After an overpriced but substantial hotel breakfast the following morning, we hit the ground running under James’ careful guidance. Within an hour he had us all registered, familiar with our surroundings, and ready to roll!
The show was laid out between the three hotels in a logical fashion designed to minimize the amount of traveling for attendees. Unfortunately there were no overhead walkways open so all hotel hopping had to be done at ground level and against traffic. The Marriott hosted the majority of the dealer’s space while the Hyatt had the gaming and event rooms and the Hilton housed the special guests. With a little planning it was fairly easy to avoid changing hotels more than once every few hours but covered pathways above ground would be a welcome addition in the future, especially for fans dressed in giant animal costumes that have to dodge cars!
With so many of the current shows being little more than a few events and guests tacked on to a massive dealers area, Dragoncon is a refreshing return to the classic days of true fandom gatherings. Fans looking for panels, discussions, lectures, contests and gaming could find more than enough to fill the entire four-day weekend. There was so much to do that most of the events were grouped into individual tracks. These included the obvious Star Wars and Star Trek themes as well as more exotic subjects like real science. This made it very convenient for fans of a particular film or show to schedule their day and even jumping between the tracks was a fairly easy process. One thing was for certain, if anyone attending Dragoncon couldn’t find enough things to do over the course of the weekend, they just weren’t trying!
My first order of business on Saturday was to pay a visit to the incredible celebrity guest area. The show offered an impressive selection of guests from every facet of fandom including movies, television, artists, and writers. The number of guests alone was so immense that they had to be spread throughout the hotel. The main area, dubbed the “Walk of Fame”, had to have its participants staggered and rotating to accommodate the guests and fans alike. A printed schedule was included in the program guide but most guests were there almost all day regardless of their set times. Others, like Denise Crosby could never seem to be found at their booths and some of the writers and artists couldn’t be located at all.
The Walk area housed most of my preferred celebrities from movies and television, which were divided up into themes. There were the typical “guys in suits” from Star Wars and George Takei and Denise Crosby (at least I think she was there) representing both old and new Star Trek generations. From the Saturday morning world of Sid & Marty Krofft came Johnny Whitaker, Scott Kolden, Rip Taylor, Kathy Coleman, and the multi-talented Walker Edmiston who claimed this was only his second convention. A John Carpenter group consisted of the still lovely Adrienne Barbeau, the highly underrated Tom Atkins, and the nearly unrecognizable Charles Cyphers. Other celebrities in the diverse mix included Butch “Eddie Munster” Patrick, members of the Happy Days cast, Stephen Furst best known as “Flounder” in the film Animal House, and even porn-starlet turned B actress Traci Lords. In a very odd pairing, the grand master of all zombie films, George A. Romero, was paired up with elder statesman of entertainment Mickey Rooney who, at 86, looked more than a little disturbed by some of his surroundings!
Next up was the only real area of disappointment for me for the entire event, the dealer’s room. While it was certainly sizable and there was a lot of variety, the merchandise leaned more towards gaming supplies, fantasy weapons and fashion than I am normally used to. There were several dealers with excellent selections of vintage movie memorabilia but the prices were well beyond what can be routinely found online. It is a rare treat to get to see vintage movie posters and golden age comic books in the flesh but this was more of a museum to me than marketplace. I queried a few dealers I recognized from other shows about their considerations for this one and was told that the high price of tables forced them to limit their merchandise to only the most marketable items. This monetary challenge also seemed to restrict the number of bootleg DVD and “flea market” type vendors normally present at shows of this kind. Byron and Rich informed me that there were good deals to be had on gaming items but there was little that couldn’t be passed up and found locally at a later date. In the end, I spent less than $50 in the dealer’s room, which is almost unheard of for me!
We regrouped for dinner Saturday evening and headed to a small mall within walking distance of the hotel. Upon arriving at the food court, we found it overrun by Klingons, Ghostbusters, superheroes, and all manner of fantasy characters! We decided better of our idea to eat there and cautiously retreated to a less hectic Mexican restaurant nearby. The food was good but the less than fluent in English waitress mistook Rich’s order of a “peach” margarita for a “pitcher” of margaritas! Not being ones to waste good alcohol, we dutifully finished off the pitcher but the rest of the night was a blur!
Costumes were a very important part of Dragoncon and added immensely to the convention atmosphere. Some outfits were so elaborate that they looked like they could have just stepped off the set of the Hollywood movie they were inspired by. We didn’t dare to speculate on how much time and money must have gone into some of these creations but they certainly succeeded in looking impressive. Interestingly, the most popular costume theme this year appeared to be vampire hooker. This was followed closely by post-apocalyptic hooker, Goth hooker, space hooker and fantasy hooker. It was probably not a bad idea to keep the kids in the room after dark!
On Sunday I decided to devote the majority of the day to old-fashioned convention events. I attended an informative Q&A session with horror film legend George A. Romero (special effects artists and long time Romero collaborator Tom Savini apparently canceled out). Unfortunately, the questions were marred by requests for autographs, even after repeated admonishments, and queries from people who seemed not to have seen the films they were inquiring about. Romero took all of this in good-natured stride and even revealed some details about his upcoming Diary of the Dead project.
Even though I had never watched a whole episode of the show Myth Busters before, I followed James into a panel featuring three of the shows assistants. The event was held in a very large banquet room but the place was still packed to the rafters with fans of the Discovery Channel program. Attendees were treated to a hilarious video of bloopers and outtakes from the series demonstrating both the sophomoric humor behind the scenes and just how much the brave participants are willing to put up with to test or disprove their theories!
We finished up the afternoon watching fan produced short films that were broadcast to the rooms in the hotel. These ranged from hilarious and professional to filmed with a video camera in the hotel lobby, but it was a nice piece of set dressing to help keep the convention spirit stoked. We ended Sunday by heading for a nearby Chinese restaurant and were reminded that we were in Atlanta as we watched four police officers take down a suspicious looking character across the street. Over a tasty but overpriced meal, we laid out battle plans for our final convention assault and return trip the following day.
The Monday morning convention wrap up went far faster than anticipated. There were still a few celebrities lurking around but I had diligently covered all the ground I wanted to in the previous two days. We were shocked as we roamed the thinning dealers room to see that the typical packing up and going home sales were almost nonexistent. While a scant few discounts could be found, the “everything must go” attitude to avoid taking merchandise home and/or recovering table expenses was not to be found. We ended the morning early and on a slightly down note as we decided we had seen all we could and it was time to blow town.
In the end, Dragoncon was a fun experience and a great nostalgia blast of what real fan conventions used to be. Unfortunately the added expense of travel and hotel costs coupled with a below average merchandise selection make this a once every few years event at best. My gaming companions were also disappointed at the lack of organized gaming that forced attendees to either sign up well in advance or wander around looking for pick up games. As Byron put it, if I wanted to run small games I could have stayed home and done that. Fortunately Patrick did have a good time and spent all of his money (and some of his father’s) on fantasy gear, gaming supplies and videos. Our consensus was that, even with all the events and the size of the show, we could still have covered the important highlights in one full day and not had to drag the experience out over an entire long weekend.