Lately, many anime fans are lamenting the dilution of their favorite anime conventions as more of them begin to take on non-anime programming. I recommend that anime con attendees try to go to an all-encompassing convention to get their fix of other fandoms, and the best venue for that is Dragon con. Unlike most other conventions, it is a larger, anything-goes event where fans of almost anything are accepted and welcomed. You might be wondering what this experience could offer Japanese media fans. It is true that the anime and video game coverage is slim at the event, but this wasn’t always the case. Before there were anime conventions, Dragoncon was one of the first places that fans could learn more about it. Now it is a place for scifi, horror, fantasy, literature, and so much more. Here are my notes on my fifth Dragoncon experience, and some advice on lasting the week.
First of all, you’re going to have to plan how to get there. While I’m sure some of the Alternate History folk are coasting in on large unicycles or pogo sticks, you’re probably arriving by car or by plane. Drivers are going to have to worry about parking costs, which range from five to thirty dollars a day. Once you are there, you will likely not lay eyes on the street again thanks to convenient hamster trails in the main four buildings, which makes the parking cost seem like a waste until you hear about how many car break-ins have occurred in the past. Flyers should be mindful that the MARTA train is the simplest and cheapest way to get to the convention, but you’ll have to carry all your luggage, so you might want to take a taxi.
Next, you’re going to have to stay somewhere. If you didn’t call at exactly the right minute on the right October morning, you probably don’t have a room. But don’t despair. A quick search on Google will help you find strangers looking for someone just like you to sleep under their table.
Now you have to schedule your time. You get your program in the mail or online. You mark all of the various events you want to see, and there are far too many to even mention here: concerts, art shows, celebrity signings, parades, panels, exhibition halls, drum circles… there really is something for every kind of attendee. Once you are certain of everything you want to do, accept the fact that you will spend the entire weekend struggling to find the time to go to more than a couple events. The rest of the time you will be too busy talking to scantily clad women, avoiding hazardous objects falling from balconies, and drinking with celebrities. If you’ve been to a previous Dragoncon and this isn’t what happened to you, you were doing it wrong.
Cosplayers have one final step, and that is the stressful months of sewing and plotting photoshoots ahead of time. Take care not to overwhelm yourself with too many plans!
This year’s registration was a disappointment to many attendees. There is some weird inverse proportion on Thursday where those that pre-registered wait for hours while the unregistered walk in and out inminutes. However, from Friday morning onward, that ratio reverses and only those that registered ahead of time can get through smoothly. But this year that didn’t seem to happen; the lines never seemed to godown in length. There were people roaming around on Saturday thatstill hadn’t picked up their badge after hearing of lines four hours and longer.
While most others were struggling with the regular badge lines we ended up in the VIP Media Party; all the people capable of handing out our badges were running it! I have to say that the Dragoncon Media staff is one of the nicest I’ve ever encountered at a convention. And I’m not just saying that because of the fancy party and the force feeding of liquor filled syringes. They were very kind and efficient, and seemed to know everyone by name. I really only have one complaint about press status at Dragoncon, but I’ll get into that later.
Costuming on Thursday night is the tamest, and yet sometimes the most fun. It’s not an official convention day so this is often the best time to see your friends. For us, it was the only time we saw many of them as the crowds become simply overwhelming over the rest of the weekend.
With events almost 24 hours a day, you can usually sleep until noon or later without missing much. We chose to wake up early on Friday morning and head to the gym, certain that we would not get another chance due to unforeseen circumstances. This was sadly prophetic since later that night I would find myself with a sprained wrist caused by a Heely accident during a photoshoot. For future Marriott guests, I do recommend you escape to the pool and gym if you have a chance, however.
From there we ate and began to explore the lobbies and social areas. It seems even at an “All Nerds Welcome” event, there are some groups that are still ostracized. The 10th floor of the Marriott is an open lounge area where claustrophobics can escape the stifling crowds to eat and chat in a quieter location. And it was also made into a Furry Safe Zone by some organization of unknown numbers and influence. All I know is their spokesperson was kind enough to pose for a photo with us and offer a brochure.
Since I and some friends were wearing our Pokemon costumes we decided to enter the Hallway contest, by far the easiest one to enter. All you have to do is stop by their booth, have a photo taken, and you’re done. The photos are posted on a wall and all attendees can anonymously vote for their favorites.
For more serious costumers, Friday’s Costuming Contest is the first of the large evening costume events. It is one of the only ones to have pre-judging so your craftsmanship can be seriously examined. The contestants cross the stage while the host reads aloud many details about how their costume was made. These costumes are very high quality; there is even a category for professional costume makers to enter. And they tend to be historically inspired so you will see more original concepts and less fandom designs.
Saturday morning, I made the extra effort in order to get up before 11 a.m. and see the Running a Costume Business panel. Catherine, Michael and Yaya were very professional panelists overflowing with pragmatic business advice and detailed information on marketing, customer service, and economics. Essentially, they covered every skill that does not come naturally to the average aspiring art entrepreneur. I hope they continue to host similar events in the future since so many in the convention community aspire to make money at their hobby.
In addition to the main costuming events, many interest tracks hold their own costume contest, including the Anime track. Though the entrance was blocked by the Firefly panel line, we managed to see the turnout for the cosplay contest. It’s a much smaller affair than at anime conventions, of course, but this was a room that was definitely filled with anime fans. The mood was good, but the contest seemed to end awfully fast. Also, though I’m not usually a stick in the mud about cosplay rules, there were several entries that were from American cartoons and movies. Clearly these were anime fans that didn’t think of it as anything but cosplay, but I would have liked to see them enter another contest instead.
By Saturday, you should hopefully be having a number of fanciful encounters with strangers. Even the elevators lead to mayhem. My favorite ride was with an impeccable Skeletor costumer who happened to be the person which brought us to capacity. He made it his duty to cackle at the onlookers as the elevator doors opened on each floor while we descended, mocking them as they were forced to wait for the next one. The Marriott elevators do not play music, and I found great enjoyment in asking the crowd to provide some, which at least once resulted in a beautiful folk song.
The largest Saturday costuming event is the Dawn Look-A-Like Contest. This annual event asks costumers to display their versions of the comic goddess, which are then graded on their likeness to her look and personality. In theory. In practice, while the contest looks fun and the prizes are amazing, it’s confusing for newcomers to watch. Our roommates were completely baffled as to what was going on, and the cheesy overbearing host did not help matters. We found ourselves relieved that we were in the room and could mute the TV during his half time musical act.
At the end of the day is the late night Dragon after Dark contest, one of the better known costuming events. You must be 18 years of age or older to attend, and you are probably already guessing why: many of the contestants are in various states of undress. The line for this event wraps around the building hours beforehand. For obvious reasons, this contest is not broadcast on the television network shared between the hotels like so many of the other high interest events are. While I was looking forward to this event and made an effort to negotiate with the staff, it seemed impossible because there is no priority line placement for press members. I can see why for some events that might be an issue, but as a cosplay reporter I wanted to make it to as many costume contests as possible. With Dawn and After Dark back to back, it was literally impossible for me to make it to both. I know the media team is very hardworking and considerate, so I hope in future years this rule will be relaxed in certain cases and allow Press to at least attend the events they are trying to cover.
Instead, we took a field trip away from the hotels. Dragoncon has a special deal with the Georgia Aquarium that allows their attendees to stop by after regular hours for a discounted price. There isn’t much to add other than it is worthwhile to see if you’ve never been before, but they try to put on a fun event with live music, an artist signing, and informative staff at every exhibit. And of course, plenty of costumers in ocean inspired outfits trying to steal the opportunity to be photographed under a whale shark. Drunk and lonely attendees might do well to remember that the Touch Zones only apply to the starfish and stingrays, not the costumers, as appetizing as they may seem.
By Sunday you might find the roars of the crowd from your hotel lobby deafening and the thought of walking amongst them draining. But lucky for you, it’s only one more night! If you happen to be one of the roaring, blissfully inebriated, however, save yourself unnecessary rage by noting that Georgia is a dry state on Sundays. That means you cannot buy alcohol in a store and you cannot get a drink in a bar after 10 p.m. or so. This seems to have little to no effect on how many drunken partiers will be joining you, but remember to stock up earlier in the week!
The last huge costuming event of the weekend is Sunday night’s Masquerade. This event is considered to be incredibly prestigious, but as a cosplayer I have to say it mostly disappoints. While some well practiced acts liven up the event, for the most part the entries are uninspired, confusing, or unintentionally horrific. When I say in all honesty that our roommates found the older spacewoman who stripped after landing her cardboard U.F.O. to be one of the best acts of the night, I think that gives an idea of the general quality. It’s likely that all of the more talented performers and costumers are fed up with a contest that does not do any pre-judging and continuously has low standards. Dragoncon should try to make the rewards for the contest more alluring to pull them back in.
Monday morning is usually marked by hangovers, packing, and one last trip to the dealer’s room. For those of us with a long ride home, it can be exhausting trying to get the luggage back in the car at a decent hour. It’s no fun having to wait in front for the massive traffic jam of taxis to slow down, so air travelers should trust the MARTA to lead them home.
For us, the struggle to leave was made more complicated by a fire that had occurred at the Hilton the night before. Apparently my carmates had to take the staff elevators up and down to their room. Between this, the objects being thrown off the balconies, the permanent marker in the elevators and who knows what else, it’s always surprising that they let us back every year. But I’m sure the convention makes them enough money that they will keep tolerating the side effects.
Despite all the chaos, I still recommend this convention to… well, pretty much everyone. With such a diverse crowd, there’s something for you and all of your friends. Japanese media fans may find it isn’t very heavy with the anime events, but maybe Dragoncon can be the non-otaku event to relieve all your other interests, allowing anime conventions to get back to focusing on what they do best.