A Report Inspired By Attending Dragon*Con

I had long been aware of Dragon*Con in the same vague sense that one is often away of annual cons that one has never attended however it was in 2011 that my desire to attend Dragon*Con was tweaked. The catalyst that tweaked my desire to attend Dragon*Con occurred at TAM in 2011. TAM is an annual conference ran by The James Randi Educational Foundation. The conference has been held in Las Vegas for several days in July the past few years. TAM was another of those conferences I had heard about but never attended. So in 2011 I attended TAM for the first time and had a great experience. TAM is a conference focused on the value of Science and Skepticism and how to detect and counter cognitive fallacies and woo-woo stuff such as psychics, ghosts and faith-healers. There were workshops on how psychic readings are done and how to critically investigate everything from big foot to ghosts. Several times I heard speakers or conversations where Dragon*Con was mentioned. I gathered that there was a strong presence of Skeptics at Dragon*Con and there was an entire programming track devoted to Skepticism with speakers such as Eugenie Scott from NCSE. This lead me to deciding to attend Dragon*Con in 2012 and thus skip needing to make the choice between Burning Man and Worldcon.

My previous time in Atlanta was about ten years ago on a business trip and all I had seen was the airport, a hotel on the outer edge of Atlanta and a computer server room where I was part of team installing some servers. I decided to arrive early and have at least an afternoon to see more of Atlanta. The con ran from Friday morning to noon Monday (Labor Day). My flight from SFO to Atlanta had at least three people headed for Dragon*Con; there may have been more but I could personally confirm three. By the time I checked into my hotel it was late in the Wednesday evening. The Atlanta rail system is called MARTA and has a terminal at the airport. The main con hotels had long been booked solid so I was staying in the Melia which is two MARTA stops past the stop near the Hyatt. Hint if you are going to be making more that a handful of trips on MARTA buy the 7 day pass. Second hint if you have a Clipper card which is used by many of the transit systems (BART, VTA, etc) in the San Francisco Bay Area do not get it near the MARTA card reader or the MARTA reader will think it is an MARTA card and your Clipper card might get corrupted. The Melia Hotel is conveniently located a block from a MARTA stop which is also a bus transfer point. Many other Dragon*Con attendees were staying at the Melia Hotel plus the Melia was a main hotel for Pride Weekend such as International Black Gay Pride. So the Melia was full and busy.

Thursday morning I got up and headed off to go through Dragon*Con registration since they had special Thursday morning hours for persons who had pre-registered. When I got to Sheraton the line was already out the door, down the sidewalk and around the corner. Since I had been in a similar long line at Fanime in San Jose a couple of months previously and it had taken 2 hours and 37 minutes to cycle through. However I was pleasantly surprised when the line moved and after a few minutes moved again. Much sooner that I expected I was in the hotel and then into the large room with the serpentine line which moved surprisingly quickly. I had my badge less than an hour later. One of the main reasons seemed to be the bar coded postcard system they used. When I had pre-registered months previously they had sent a blue postcard that said very plainly to bring the post card with you to registration. That post card had a bar code printed on it and when a person stepped one of the reg stations the staff person there scanned the post card and a label was printed on a label maker which the slapped on the Dragon*Con badge and the badge handed over. That was all they did. If you had a problem you went to the problem station. If you wanted to pickup a banquet ticket you first got your badge and then went to the station for other tickets. The reg station did not hand people their program books that was done in the next room. All the reg stations did was do reg badges; nothing more. And there were about 16 stations. There was no worrying about how to split by last name because any station could handle any pre-registration card. There was one person as traffic control so that at any time a reg station had one person being processed and two in queue waiting. It was very efficient.

After I had my badge and other items I got some lunch and then headed back to the hotel to drop things off. After dropping my things at the hotel I walked over to the bus transfer point and got a local bus which stops about a block from the Martin Luther King National Historical Site which has many fine displays and information about Dr. King and the Civil Rights struggle. Across the street is the King Center which has rooms with interesting displays related to Dr. King, Coretta Scott King, Mahatma Gandhi and Rosa Parks. Outside there was a long reflecting pool and what appeared to be a small chapel or meditation room at the end of the pool. But it was locked and appeared to have been converted to storage although this was most likely noticeable only to a inquisitive person such as me. Overall I rate the time spend at the various MLK sites as well worth the effort and I recommend it to others. Then I got the bus back to the hotel to get ready for the evening.

The Thursday evening event was not directly part of Dragon*Con but had many attendees who would be in town for Dragon*Con. The event was sponsored by the Atlanta area skeptics as a charity fund raiser for the Leukemia Lymphoma Society. The theme was to be astronomy in honor of Jeff Medkeff who had died from cancer in 2008 and had been very involved in astronomy. The plan was to hold the event at a venue that served food and drink and had a place to set up some telescopes. The venue was good, the food was good and the beer was cold and reasonably priced and all served by a friendly and competent staff. The problem was that the sky was covered by clouds. The storm that disrupted the Republican convention was close enough to Atlanta to cause clouds, not rain just a lot of clouds. So no telescope viewing but they did use the internet to contact people in other places to view their computer linked telescopes and thus there were images of the moon displayed on a screen. Plus there were live performers including George Hrab as well as bloggers and writers well known in the Skeptic community. It was a great party but eventually I decided to leave and get some rest since I still had not totally made the time zone shift and I expected the morning would come subjectively very early.

So I departed and was going to grab a taxi back to my hotel. A large group of people had justed exited the bar next door and were filling both of the available taxis. So I decided to walk on and contemplate my options when after walking about 20 meters or so I came upon a young lady who appeared to be about 14 or 15 years old asking some random person on a bicycle how to get to the Sheraton. After the person on the bicycle said that he had no idea, I stepped up and asked if she was looking Dragon*Con registration at the Sheraton. She said yes and that she thought it was nearby since she had gotten off at a MARTA stop and walked this direction. I said no and that she was turned around 180 degrees however I knew where the Sheraton was since I had been there that morning. Since there were no more cabs around I suggested we just walk. So we walked back and she said she was going to volunteer at Dragon*Con and this was her first year attending. She needed to meet someone the Sheraton before midnight. So at 11:55PM I walked her to the proper intersection and pointed to the Sheraton across the street. She was happy and thankful and headed toward the Sheraton and I headed to MARTA so get back to my hotel for some much needed sleep because the con would be going in earnest in the morning.

Friday morning came earlier than my body expected. I got up and did the usual morning things and caught MARTA to the con. At this point I should note that weeks prior to the con a smartphone app had been released which listed all of the events in all of the tracks and allowed each person to customize their own schedule even to the point of booking themselves to four or more events at the same time. And there were many items to consider.

Dragon*Con is a large event with attendance in the 50,000 plus range. I suspect that most readers of this report have either engaged in the game of Bumper Cars or have observed others engaged in that activity. Navigating the hallways at Dragon*Con is like a game of Bumper People; particularly at a couple of choke points. Dragon*Con utilizes much of the hotel space in central Atlanta in particular the Sheraton and three hotels which are connected the Hyatt, Mariott and Hilton. These hotels are connected by an enclosed walkway which allows moving from hotel to hotel without worrying about weather or crossing the street. These three hotels are located on a slope so to access the walkway one does need to utilize the escalators or stairs to get at the appropriate level.

Dragncon has many tracks. Many, many tracks. Everything from a track on Skepticism to a track related to computers and technology to a track on Star Wars. Interested in cosplay then there are panels on than. Interested in podcasting then their are panels on that. Interested in the latest SF and Fantasy novels then there will be publisher representatives to tell you about upcoming books. And that is only touching the surface. To get an indication see http://DragonCon.org/fan_tracks.php and look around. And speaking of tracks now is a good time to mention the Dragon*Con parade. This parade has contingents from the different tracks marching in downtown Atlanta. This is an event where many people from the community turn out several deep to watch the parade particularly families with children. You can see the information an Atlanta family site provided at http://www.atlantawithkid.com/family-guide-to-annual-dragoncon-parade-2012/ as an example There are many pictures and videos of the parade online so I will give one URL http://www.tor.com/blogs/2012/09/the-cosplay-of-dragoncon-2012-day-two-the-parade and everyone can google for the rest. The parade has about 3000 Dragon*Con attendees participating. I watched the parade from near where it began and from beginning to end was about an hour or so. For a great photo of people viewing the parade and a fine Dragon*Con report see: http://efanzines.com/SFSF/SFSF134.pdf

In addition to the various panels Dragon*Con had a number of larger events. One of those was a joint appearance of James Randi (already mentioned above) and Alice Cooper. Now one might ask why were the well known magician and skeptic James Randi and the famous (or Infamous) rocker Alice Cooper on stage together being interviewed. The answer is that years ago James Randi was part of the Billion Dollar Baby tour of Alice Cooper. And they had remained in touch and friends over the years. The interview was a great time for stories from Randi and Coop. And Coop gave the true story that he did not kill the chicken at the concert in Detroit. However at the time he let the rumor spread because it was such good publicity.

One difference from a Worldcon was a larger number of special guests who had acted in various TV or media productions. For some of these guests you who purchase a photo opportunity. In many cases you could buy autographed photos and most of them were on panels speaking about the shows in which they appeared. I am not generally interested too much in media however I decided to go to one panel listed as a Star Trek series mashup just to see what it was like. Several hundred people turned up to hear Michael Dorn (Worf, TNG DS9), Nichelle Nichols (Uhura, TOS) Connor Trinneer (Charles "Trip" Tucker, ENT) and Garrett Wang (Harry Kim VOY). Considering this was near the end of the con it went well.

Occasionally one hears a plaintive lament about the "Graying of Fandom"; my suggestion for anyone with that concern is go to Dragon*Con and look around. My observation was that the Dragon*Con attendees tend to be much younger than the typical Worldcon attendees. I am not the first one to make this observation and I doubt I will be the last. And others have listed the reasons so I will not attempt an exhaustive or even extensive list in this report. However I will note a couple of items. One is the cosplay. Cosplay is becoming an increasing large phenomena. I noticed at Dragon*Con many dealers selling non-book items such as superhero action figures, DVD/BluRay videos, costuming accessories, media star photos and photo opportunities compared to Worldcon.

There was an art show somewhat like a Worldcon art show with a few differences. One difference was that I saw a couple of instances where the artists was also a writer and was selling both copies of their books as well as artwork based on their stories. In one case I noticed an author selling used copies of her early works published by one of the regular publishers and then later works in the series being self published and selling both art prints as well as a large original oil painting based on the series.

There were so many dealers that they were split into multiple rooms. And the rooms were crowed with people and as least some appeared to be making purchases. At one point I thought I had visited every dealer room when I turned a corner and there was one more which was serendipitous since it was in that room that I found a DVD of the play The Book of Morman. I was glad to get it since I suspected that I would not get tickets for the play when it was in the San Francisco Bay Area. The dealer slots varied from a small space where one to authors were pushing the books to slightly larger for some small presses to very large muli-space areas crammed with collectible action figures, games, manga, videos, t-shirts and toys. And there were a few traditional book dealers. Unfortunately there was a booth hawking L. Ron Hubbard drivel and Writers of the Future. At least they were not offering free personality tests or trying to run an e-meter scan on the unsuspecting. At least not as far as I could see. However one never knows when one sees people who appear to me to be shills, fronts or smokescreens for Hubbard, Dianetics, Scientology or what other BS they are shoveling at the moment. But the rest of dealers areas were interesting.

And of course Dragon*con had an area for various organization and fan tables. The James Randi Educational Foundation and National Center for Science Education NCSE were just a couple of the tables I stopped by on multiple occasions. And since I had not packed enough shirts I was able to get a NCSE T-shirt; the new hip fashion.

The hotels were generally well prepared. In additional to their restaurants they had setup additional food sales stands selling burgers, sandwiches, chips, fruits and drinks. Also some pizza vendors set up stalls selling pizza either by the slice or the whole pie. One of the advantage of having Dragon*Con in the same city and hotels each year is that a lot of knowledge can be build up about crowd control, food services and event scheduling. Due to the size of the con the walkways were more crowded and thus not as conducive to spontaneous conversation. Some of this was alleviated by having most panel sessions being sixty minutes with a thirty minute break between sessions. This allowed some conversations to occur following panels without the need to immediately vacate the room for the next panel.

Dragon*Con does have an opening ceremony and a closing ceremony however these were lightly attended compared to Worldcon in both absolute and relative terms. Dragon*Con also has a banquet and since it was my first Dragon*Con I decided to attend. The cost for a banquet ticket was sixty five dollars. The banquet attendance was I am guessing in the 200 to 300 range but it was difficult to tell from where I was sitting. The banquet started with a small group of musicians performing lovely classical music as people found a seat and socialized, a welcome change of ambiance. The food was good actually slightly better that most banquet food. A local politician did the usual politician speech. Awards were presented and Robert Picardo the holographic Doctor from ST:VOY performed and showed off his many skills. He is really very talented and entertaining.

The size of the events varied a seventy five person room to rooms set up to handle hundreds. For example the line to see James Randi and Alice Cooper started to form more that an hour prior to the event and went down the hall then out the side door and down the walkway to the sidewalk and then down the sidewalk. But everyone got in and there were extra seats just not up front.

One of the events I enjoyed was not on the official list. George Hrab had started telling some people that following his scheduled event at 11:00PM he would be performing on the piano in the hotel hallway. And after his scheduled event and after his assistant had concluded selling a few CDs he went out to the piano in the hotel hallway and performed the entire Dark Side of the Moon. Just him singing and accompanying himself on the piano and a crowd people standing and sitting and listening to a great performance. George Hrab has a podcast and you can hear part of his scheduled Dragon*Con event and the mis-communication about him possibly being the interviewer for the Randi and Coop event as well as him discussing playing Dark Side of the Moon at http://geologicpodcast.com/the-geologic-podcast-episode-279 And to hear about George having Poutine in Montreal try http://geologicpodcast.com/the-geologic-podcast-episode-281
Podcasting is becoming increasingly popular. In addition to en entire track on podcasting the popular Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast recorded an entire session before a live audience late one night at Dragon*Con. To listen to it http://www.theskepticsguide.org/archive/podcastinfo.aspx?mid=1&pid=373 And ranging even further afield you can read what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention aka CDC had to say about Dragon*Con http://blogs.cdc.gov/publichealthmatters/2012/11/Dragon*Con-2012/

As Dragon*Con started to wind down on Monday I joined an eclectic mix of persons who had been attending many of the Skeptics panels for an impromptu Skeptics In The Pub gathering at a bar. We ate and drank and spoke of the fun we had and discussed flying back to our various homes. It was a fun end to an enjoyable weekend.

This report has only touched on small fraction of many aspects of Dragon*Con. Dragon*Con is big and seems to have covered almost all of the fannish bases plus more. In summary I will say that I really enjoyed Dragon*Con. It had a different vibe and higher energy than a lot of cons I have attended.   It might not be for everyone every year but I think most fans would enjoy attending it at least once.