Thursday, August 17, 2017

Dragon Con 2017 – I Do So Love Watching Newbies

Jerry Chandler

An important thing upfront for those out there who might take that the wrong way; that is absolutely not meant in any way to be a negative. At some point or another, all of us, even the people that started the con, were Dragon Con newbies and it’s not a bad thing in any way. There is one thing that’s radically different about newbies in the more recent eras of the con versus the newbies of the earliest days of the con, though. At this point, there’s even very likely a substantial difference between newbies now versus newbies in my newbie year, 2006, at the con. It’s that difference over the years, that growing difference, which makes them so damned fun to watch at con. Also, in this case, I’m talking about the newbies that each of us who have been going for a while personally know.

Dragon Con is a huge event. When you’re there and in the middle of it, it’s almost for all intents and purposes like being on an entirely different world complete with its own various cultures and subcultures to experience and navigate. When talking about its sheer size, Dragon Con is even larger than other conventions in the country with more attendees because of its massive footprint in the downtown Atlanta area. Dragon Con isn’t in (and likely would never feel quite right for so many people in) a single, giant convention center or convention complex.

When I first went eleven years ago, it was already in three major downtown hotels. My first Dragon Con was just the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, the Marriott Marquis Atlanta, and the Hilton Atlanta. These days you’ve still got those along with the Sheraton Atlanta Hotel, the Westin Peachtree Plaza Hotel, two of the AmericasMart buildings, and an official event during the convention at the Georgia Aquarium. Throw in the fact that the sky bridges connecting two of the host hotels to Peachtree Center have unofficially made the Peachtree Center food court the official Dragon Con cafeteria and mess hall for many and you’re talking about five major downtown Atlanta hotels, two enormous buildings, one entire level of Peachtree Center, and the biggest aquarium that most attendees will ever visit spread out in a reasonably tight cluster in downtown Atlanta. Then there are all of the unofficial events all around town at clubs, bars, and places like the Center for Puppetry Arts. Dragon Con is only a few more buildings away from completely taking over the heart of the city.

Dragon Con Takes Atlanta

Or, if you’re looking for a more practical video to explain it, they have this one to offer.

Newbie Walking Tours at Dragon Con 2016

Then there are the crowds. Despite being spread out across multiple levels of multiple buildings, you’re still packing in, these days, well over 75,000 people. It’s an amazingly orderly and polite 75,000+ people, but it’s still sometimes like navigating your way through the densest of jungles.

On top of all of that, the crowds at Dragon Con don’t quite look like the crowds anywhere else; to some degree, not even at other cons. Dragon Con has for years now had the reputation of being a cosplay con. It’s the convention where you’re more likely to see not only the most cosplay, but some of the biggest, some of the best, some of the wildest, and some of the most quirky and obscure cosplay all at the same time and fairly consistently over the four days (and now the soft fifth) of the con.

On top of that, there’s the fact that once it officially starts it really doesn’t ever stop until it reaches Monday afternoon, and it’s not contained to the walls of the official convention buildings. Scheduled convention events can run into the very wee hours of the morning, and parties have been known to go on all night long. While it’s something you should probably avoid, it’s not unheard of for people to get so swept up in it all that they don’t sleep for two days at a time or get no more than a few one hour naps in here and there until the end of it. The local businesses and clubs have events and parties all weekend long. There are also drum circles and local street performers covering the sidewalks of downtown Atlanta at all hours of the day and night and tailoring their performances to fit the Dragon Con crowds. It’s literally everywhere no matter where you go in the greater downtown Atlanta area, and it goes on essentially nonstop from the Wednesday before the con starts to Monday night after it’s over. So, based on all of that, I think it’s fairly easy to see why Dragon Con isn’t exactly the typical convention experience for people used to smaller conventions or even some of the larger ones out there.

That’s what makes friends who are Dragon Con newbies so much fun to see.

My wife had been to more than a few Dragon Cons before we met and got married. My first Dragon Con was after we got married. To a lesser degree, she got to witness with me in 2006 what I’ve been able to witness with other friends in later years. But my first Dragon con, as I stated earlier, was in only three hotels and had roughly only 20,000 attendees. By the time I got to get some friends to finally break down and come see what all if the fuss was about in 2011 and 2016, the convention had grown significantly larger than my first Dragon Con.

What is it that I’m talking about that’s so much fun to see with a first time attendee? It’s the glorious, wonderful, amazing sensory overload and almost culture shock that hits many people like a freight train; especially on Saturday. Until you experience it, there’s no way to prepare for it and there’s no way to truly understand it. It has a certain kind of energy to it that feeds into you and lets you feed off of it. It picks you up like a wave and makes you want to ride it like a madman or madwoman well past the point where your body and your mind are ready to take a much needed timeout.

I had a friend come who, and we joked with him about this at the time, became easy to spot in the crowds by day two. Even on Saturday night when the main levels of the Hyatt and the Marriott become a massive sea of humanity, you could spot him from all the way over at the other side of that massive sea of humanity. While 99.9% of everyone else on that level of the hotel was way into the swing of things, he was the one who, while still enjoying it and loving the experience, was so totally overwhelmed by the first time experience that he looked like he was wandering around shell shocked and unsure of which way to turn or which way to look first.

I have one very good friend who experienced his first ever Dragon Con last year; the 30th Anniversary show. I’d been bugging him for years now to come down to Atlanta for Labor Day weekend, see the sights, enjoy the fun, and plug his work a little bit.

Now, this wasn’t your average con goer, and he didn’t have just the average first time attendee experience either. He’s an independent filmmaker out of North Carolina. He’s been doing the regional and occasionally not so regional convention and film festival scene for years now. He’s been a panelist and guest at any number of conventions over the years. He’s led how-to courses, run contests and games, and even helped run programming for other conventions. When not doing that, he could be found cramming 30 to 36 hours of indie horror filming into two-day weekends around his five day a week day job. This is someone who has spent a lot of years growing accustomed to being able to handle running around like a bat out of hell on too much caffeine with his wings on fire. Plus, he had me and a number of other friends who had been to Dragon Con doing all we could to brace him and make him understand- at least academically –that nothing he’d done or experienced before had really prepared him for what he was about to experience in Atlanta. We really tried, because not only would he be attending and trying to do the usual attendee stuff, but he was experiencing his first Dragon Con as an attending professional. He was not only going to be trying to see all the sights and sounds of Dragon Con, but he had obligations and commitments to fulfill while there.

Oh, by the way, his name is Bill Mulligan. He’s back this year as an attending pro and you should look him up when the app updates. He’ll be doing more than a few panels in the Horror Track with the rest of the Grue Crew fromGruesome Magazine and Horror News Radio and a host of other entertaining speakers. 

We gave him all of the advice and warnings that we could before the big event. But, as with everyone else, despite all of that other stuff in his background, that wave still initially picked him up, carried him along at a breakneck pace beyond where he thought his limits at any given moment were, and gently or not so gently crashed him back down every now and again. There were a few times that I and/or my wife or a few other friends would see him starting to get that mildly glazed look in his eyes, give him a tug on the arm, and suggest that now might be a good time to take a break, come have a meal and something to drink, and let the batteries try to recharge for an hour or so. We had to do it. We had to do it for him just as so many other Dragon Con regulars have had to do it for their first timer friends and just as my wife had to once do with me. Because no matter what you’ve experienced in the past or what you’ve been told to prepare yourself for, nothing can actually fully prepare you for that first time experience. Almost nothing could have truly prepared me before I went for my first time in 2006 and ran around like lunatic before almost running myself into the ground just over halfway through the convention, and the newbie experience has only gotten bigger, more intense, and more overwhelming in the eleven years since.

However, even as I’ve used descriptions like culture shock and shell shock and talked about it as an overwhelming, intense experience, it is absolutely one of the best kinds of culture shock and shell shock and intense, overwhelming experiences that you could ever have. That wave that can- until you become experienced enough with it to ride it with a little more control -pick you up and carry you along and drive you to the point that you go more than a bit too far past your own personal crash point is the vibe of Dragon Con. It’s the life energy of the convention created by the now over 75,000 and then some people attending who are all so very excited to be there, happier than some of them can describe to be back, and wanting to enjoy and share the things they passionately love with over 75,000 of their four-plus day best friends and extended family members.

When you’ve gotten a few Dragon Cons behind you and you’ve learned to handle that wave of energy right, it can almost in a way feed you. It can even help carry you through the weekend. When it really grabs ahold of you, you’ll also find that it’s more than a little addictive, and, to quote Thomas Mariani from the above linked Horror News Radio episode discussing their first time Dragon Con experiences, you will find it is a dragon you will definitely want to chase.

And that may be the single most fun thing about watching a Dragon Con newbie. When people walk into that convention for the first time and that energy and that vibe hits and hooks them like the best kind of addiction in the world; you can see it in their eyes. You can see it when it happens, and you know at that point that they’ve just become another member of your annual Dragon Con family.

To help you out with your or your friends’ newbie experience, you might want to check out some of the following links. As I said, nothing can truly prepare you for what you or they are about to experience, but some of the following can help first timers be better prepared to get through it and enjoy it more.

These are also great for veteran attendees as well, and in many cases are as entertaining as they are informative.

First, check out the Dragon Con Newbies Facebook group. If you have questions, they have answers. In a lot of years you’ll also see on that page information for tours for newbies that are set up just before the con kicks off. As I stressed earlier, the footprint for Dragon Con is huge. They can help you to learn your way around it a bit before the con, and learn a few tips about the best ways to navigate that footprint as well.

Every year the Earth Station One crew has a series of podcasts dedicated to Dragon Con, the ESO Dragon Con Khan Report. The podcasts start early in the year and have a huge amount of useful information and tips from the regular crew and a large number of guests with years and decades of experience as Dragon Con attendees.

Every year, starting 50 days out from the convention, the Unique Geek puts out an almost daily podcast devoted to helping everyone prepare for the big event. Not only do they bring on Dragon Con veterans who can share a wealth of great information, but they manage to get on as guests track directors from Dragon Con and occasionally some of the higher ups as well. So you get a lot of news and tips straight from the people putting the convention together, and in a fairly close to real time countdown to the big event podcast. Additionally, the hosts- while making it clear that this is not an official podcast of the convention –have very strong ties to Dragon Con themselves. Besides having both been attendees from way back when, one is a longtime track director and the other has been a volunteer at the convention.

Additionally, while you’re looking for tips and information, you should come back here. The archives have any number of posts devoted to Dragon Con that range from simply telling you what there is to see and do to, as with one of my older posts linked just below, giving tips to help make it through the con and have it be a more enjoyable experience. There are also a number of posts that have the audio from panels of Dragon Cons past. Plus, the Phantom Troublemaker has already started his annual series of Dragon Con related podcasts where he has on friends and Dragon Con track directors to get you up to speed on the upcoming big event and to help you find out what you need to know to be better prepared to enjoy what’s coming.

One Month until Dragon Con – Let’s Talk First Timing It

Needless Things Podcast 172 – Dragon Con 2017: Back to the Classics Track

 Needless Things Podcast 173 – Dragon Con 2017: Revenge of the Horror Track

The Needless Things Website

Whether you’re a newbie or an old hand, I hope you all enjoy Dragon Con this year. 

Oh, one bit of commentary about the Dragon Con app and the release of the schedule before the convention. It doesn't apply to everyone, but for some of you that might need a gentle nudge and reminder, I have a request outlined here.

Jerry Chandler has been going to Dragon Con since 2006. Much to the surprise of many who know him and know of his devotion to Dragon Con, he had to be first conned and then dragged kicking and screaming to his first Dragon Con by his wife. He is forever grateful to her for that and can’t imagine at this point in his life what his life would be like without Dragon Con and the many, many wonderful people he’s met there and become friends with. He regrets that life happened while he was making plans this year, and his family won’t be able to attend the 2017 Dragon Con. He does hope though that everyone else has one of the best times they have this year over Labor Day weekend in Atlanta.


  1. And I will forever be grateful to you and Jenn for getting me out there and deglazing my eyes as needed.