Friday, September 09, 2011

Dragon*Con 2011: A n00b's Tale, Part I.

Dragon ConImage via WikipediaAs some are aware, I was ordered by my wife to attend my first Dragon*Con this year. Now, I help run my local con and I attended Comic-Con in 2002, back when it was only twice as large as Dragon*Con, so I figured I was prepared for whatever D*C could throw at me.

Woe, the hubris of geeks.

THURSDAY

I arrived in Atlanta early Thursday morning (via a scandalously cheap Vision Airlines flight), and in less than 30 minutes I had found my people. As I sat on the MARTA train waiting for it to pull away to Peachtree Center (the nexus of Dragon*Con), a group of twenty-somethings dragging an obscene number of rollaway suitcases ambled aboard. They looked normal enough, though one of them smiled at my Redshirt as she boarded. In a few moments, they were complaining about lack of sleep and an excess of luggage, with at least one of them bemoaning that she stayed up until 2am sewing a sash for her Ms. Marvel costume.

"Classic Ms. Marvel, or her Binary costume?" I asked.

Six heads whipped in my direction, smiled, then the young lady answered. "Classic. The Binary has too much detail for my sewing skills."

And so my Dragon*Con began.

By the time we reached Peachtree some 20 minutes later, a full third of my traincar was D*C folk. I followed the crowd up into Peachtree Center Mall, where a middle-aged woman was greeted boisterously by her 30-something friend. The latter immediately converted into D*C Sherpa ModeTM, a transformation that a large majority of Dragon*Con Veterans relish in. I sheepishly asked if I might eavesdrop, and was greeted with an almost dismissive "of course." Her data-dump is summarized below.

Peachtree Mall is the connective tissue of Dragon*Con, with skyways that link the Marriott and Hyatt hotels, a street entrance that opens a block from the Westin, the food court that would sustain me for the next five days, and access to the aforementioned MARTA train. As to landmarks, the Dairy Queen was next to the Hyatt skyway, YamiYami Sushi was next to the Marriott. The most important mnemonic for the weekend was H-M-H, Hilton-Marriott-Hyatt, which described the layout of the main Dragon*Con hotels, top to bottom. (There are actually five D*C venues that form a C, the Sheraton is two blocks to the "right" of the Hilton, while the Westin is two blocks to the right of the Hyatt. I wouldn't figure this out until late Friday.) The Marriott is the epicenter of Dragon*Con, and its massive atrium and lobby is the social-cosplay ground zero of the event. Overflow runs to the Hyatt and, to a lesser degree, the Hilton, but the beating heart of Dragon*Con is the Atlanta Marriott Marquis.

Guess where I was staying?

It was not yet 10am, and my roommates-slash-Dragon*Con-pledge-sponsors, John Hickman and Charles Thompson, wouldn't arrive until roughly noon. So I located the Marriott lobby to plan my next move. And then I saw the lobby.



Registration had just opened at the Sheraton hotel, but the line was reportedly already around the block (computer problems, I would later learn), and I didn't want to be stuck there and unable to help Charles and Hickman move in -- they would be carrying a metric Volvo-wagon-load's worth of food, costumes and luggage to underpin them for the next five days. (I, being a veteran one-bag traveler who doesn't cosplay, had a single backpack to my name. Charles and Hickman still boggle at my efficiency. It's really about me refusing to pay airline baggage fees.) So I sat myself down beneath a bar shaped like a two-story metal sailboat, began charging my phone, and took in the sights.

Thursday morning is literally the only portion of Dragon*Con where the majority of hotel occupants is not in costume. Non-cosplayers are the minority all weekend long. I didn't know it at the time, but the two hours I spent waiting for my roommates would be the last dose of "normal" I'd get until Tuesday morning. And that's for very strange values of normal. The lobby slowly filled with nerds of all ages wearing slogan t-shirts and dragging a truly staggering amount of luggage into the hotel. It took less than two hours for the Marriott to shift from "barely inhabited" to "overrun with geeks that are already standing in line for the elevator." Yes, seriously.

Charles and Hickman arrived about 12:30, and I helped them unload two nearly-toppling luggage trolleys worth of gear into the hotel. (Pro Tip: You can't not use the bell staff for this; the hotel won't allow it. Be prepared to tip, and well.) Included in this haul was more alcohol than I'd seen since Freshman Disorientation in college. Seriously, this pair had nearly 200 beers of various types, plus coolers full of food, liquor and the ultra-liquor carefully distilled as part of cultural tradition unique to Appalachia, which is known by a nickname synonymous with the reflected luminosity of Earth's most prominent natural satellite. (Pay attention, this will be important later.)

We were stopped by the Sheriff's Department three seconds into the hotel lobby. Now, I don't drink, so I had no dog in this fight. Nonetheless, my roomies had to pack out about two-thirds of their joy juice before they were allowed inside. (They brought it back later in stages.) For those of you planning to party hardy at your next Dragon*Con, either disguise your booze when importing it to the hotel, or plan for multiple trips into the venue.

By 1pm we had the gear stowed on our 21st-floor room, and I was off to the Sheraton for my first "Lines of Dragon*Con" experience. Registration had been open for three hours -- six hours earlier than originally planned, to accommodate crowds -- and the line was already two-thirds of the way around the Sheraton, which occupies a large city block. Of course, this kind of social confinement makes for fast friends, and my line-mates and I quickly began developing a ritual to prompt the line to move -- usually by sitting down or arranging ourselves behind some shade. (It's midday in Atlanta in late summer, and geeks don't have much experience with direct sunlight.)

Those of us who had the Dragon*Con smartphone app also helped those that didn't download said application to begin planning their schedules. (Pro tip, don't omit the asterisk from Dragon*Con if you want to locate the app. It's free, it's awesome and I couldn't have gotten as much as did out of D*C without it.) Most of us would have killed for a cold drink during the line, but Atlanta has strict laws preventing unlicensed street vending, so there was a need unmet and an opportunity lost for all involved. We finally made it inside the Sheraton about 3:00 pm, by which time the line completely circled the hotel and they were adding serpentine gauntlets of velvet rope inside the loading dock to keep the Circle of Patience from crossing over itself.

As soon as we got inside, the whiskey came out.

A group of college kids began passing around a bottle to nearby occupants of the internal serpentine velvet rope line, which took up the entire ground floor ballroom of the hotel. We were there perhaps 30 minutes, sharing war stories and plans for the next week, when suddenly the line began moving at breakneck pace.

The computers were fixed. A process that previously required several minutes to deliver preregistered badges now took perhaps 30 seconds. Twenty different stations began churning out badges at warp speed. I was in daylight by 4pm: badge, program, and pocket guide in hand.

In the three hours time I was in line, Hickman and Charles (who paid extra to buy on site, rather than pre-register, so they got their badges in 10 minutes) had our hotel room rearranged into a Fortress of Geekitude, even going so far as to build me a nice little quasi-bedroom for my rollaway cot.

The next two hours were spent trolling through the Dragon*Con app, selecting every conceivable panel I might like to attend. This generally resulted in having no less than three possible activities every hour of every day from Friday to Monday. The rookie move was to try and whittle that down to a single option each day, which was my gameplan for Friday. By Friday's end, I learned why that was sheer folly. (Hold that thought.)

Then came dinner at the swanky High Velocity burger bar in the Marriott and the first of many new friends made, including some associates of Courtney Warfield (I know a surprising number of Nashville geeks at this point) that dressed as a rather impressive River Song and a Dalek, respectively. No less than three hours evaporated over camaraderie forged from mutual geek interests. Exhausted, I retired to my room to watch some college football before the morning's festivities began. I'd had a full day of nerd awesome, met new friends, saw new things and laughed until I cried.

And Dragon*Con hadn't even started yet.

[To be continued...]

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