This past Labor Day, the city of Atlanta once again welcomed Dragon Con to its hotels and streets. The annual convention started 37 years ago and now spans across the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, the Atlanta Marriott Marquis, the Hilton Atlanta, the Westin Peachtree Plaza Hotel and the Courtland Grand Hotel (formerly known as Sheraton Atlanta). In addition to the five hotels, AmericasMart Buildings 2 and 3 are also used for additional programming and vendors.
On Saturday morning, around 10:00 A.M., Peachtree Street was blocked off to clear the course for the Dragon Con parade, which featured upwards of 3,000 costumed characters ranging from Halo fighters to Disney characters to horror movie villains. The most popular one this year was definitely the many iterations of Barbie, from classic Barbie to “Barbenheimer” crossover Barbie to Dragon Con Barbie.
Characters from different fandoms walked together in groups, sometimes even accompanied by vehicles from their respective universes (i.e., the Surfer Boy Pizza delivery van from “Stranger Things: Season 4” and the Umbrella Corporation SUVs from “Resident Evil”). The parade’s finale came in the form of an entire tribe of Jawas, the desert planet scavengers from “Star Wars.” The hooded, glowing-eyed aliens toted stolen/“scavenged” items with them from other pop-culture universes, such as Captain America’s shield, Dorothy’s ruby slippers, The Doctor’s T.A.R.D.I.S and – to the delight of many in the crowd – a Tech T.
Dragon Con is much more than just the Saturday parade, though. One of the largest pop culture conventions in the world, DragonCon was attended by approximately 70,000 people this year — around 5,000 more than in 2022. Attendees (known as “Members” by the convention) have access to various panels, workshops, competitions and other miscellaneous events throughout the five-day event. There are panels with popular cosplayers, trivia sessions, Jackbox competitions, movies, live music and more.
The weekend is also host to a plethora of celebrity guests ranging from actors — like Paul Bettany (J.A.R.V.I.S., “Iron Man”), Billie Piper (Rose Tyler, “Doctor Who”), Elijah Wood (Frodo Baggins, “Lord of the Rings”) and Freddie Prince Jr. (Fred Jones, “Scooby Doo”) — to artists and musicians. These celebrity guests moved between panels where they answered fan questions, signed autographs and took pictures with fans.
This year’s celebrity-fan interactions were slightly different than past ones due to the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes that are still ongoing. Actors could not discuss any of the specific roles or franchises they are a part of and fan questions were filtered through a Discord submission system instead of the usual in-person format to ensure no questions were asked about struck work. Signs were also posted around the con’s autograph area, reminding fans not to ask unanswerable questions. These changes, however, led to some fun, non-traditional panel discussions that allowed fans to get to know some of their favorite actors beyond their careers and roles.
Another crucial part of the convention is the different unofficial “experiences,” which are just as popular as the official ones. For example, one Dragon Con experience is “side-questing,” in which members dress up as “NPCs” (non-playable characters) and hand out different mini “quests” that other members can do in exchange for some kind of reward. These challenges can range from finding a man carrying around a cooler full of Jell-O shots to finding someone in a mismatched outfit; attendees completing these side-quests must get a photo or video evidence as proof to bring back to the “NPC.”
Another tradition, “Swag n’ Seek,” is when fans bring small “swag” with them — such as stickers, keychains or tiny figurines — to trade with, give to other people or leave lying around the hotels to be discovered. Though it is not organized by the Con, “Swag n’ Seek” has gained so much popularity over the years that DragonCon organizers built time into the official schedule solely for exchanging tiny treasures.
“Badge Ribbons,” another Dragon Con staple, are exactly what they sound like — little sticky ribbons that can be collected and attached to the bottom of the con badges that all attendees are required to have with them at all points. Fans will print their own with different sayings and graphics to hand out over the 5-day event and many will try and see just how many ribbons they can acquire.
It is impossible to fully explain all the unique and distinct aspects of the Dragon Con community that separate the convention from any other. Truly a fan-run event through and through, the traditions of Dragon Con are brought to life by con attendees wanting to connect with each other in fun ways and through events of cons past. Some past events grow to such popularity that they become officially recognized (such as the “Cult of the Marriott Carpet”) and others are spread from DragonCon veterans to the novices with each new year (like the so-called “Cult of Jon”).
To truly get a sense of the magic that is the five-day spectacle of Dragon Con, one has to experience it firsthand. It is a good thing that the planning for the next year’s convention begins almost immediately after the weekend’s end!