Dragon Con Turns 31 – Is It Too Big Now?

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This aging dragon has certainly grown!

Just look at that graph!

It’s based on data I found on a Dragon Con wiki, which explains that its data was collected from snapshots of the Dragon Con website as preserved on the Internet Archives. I also used numbers from the Wikipedia article on Dragon Con to fill in the graph. Attendance figures for some years differ from those listed in the history section of the current version of the Dragon Con website, but I believe these numbers are close enough to deliver a good approximation of the growth this convention has experienced over the past 31 years.

 

Watching Dragon Con Grow

The very first Dragon Con was held in 1987 and attracted about 1,200 attendees (or about as many people as you’d find in a line for Shatner at today’s Dragon Con.)

Back then, there was often a star symbol inserted between the words Dragon and Con. People wrote the name of the event in all sorts of ways, the name even varied in official correspondence. It ranged from “Dragon Con” to “Dragon-Con” to “Dragoncon”, and my personal favorite: “Dragon*Con” (using an asterisk to represent that star).

My first Dragon Con was in 1989 because it’s the only year that the convention was in the Omni and it was the first time I’d been to any convention other than my favorite con, Dixie Trek. At some point Dixie Trek died forcing me to switch horses to Dragon Con.

By the early 2000s the Hyatt Regency had established itself as the epicenter of the convention. All of the main programming fit neatly into its primary ballrooms, with the remaining fan-centric tracks occupying the various meeting rooms ranged throughout its many byzantine sub-levels. The main lobby of the Hyatt was where the costumers would go to show off their handiwork, but they would save their very best costumes to reveal at the Masquerade.

Back then, the entire convention practically ground to a halt during the hours of the Masquerade, so important was it to the culture of the convention. That costume contest was the place to be, and it was so much fun because the crowd would heckle the hosts and the stage acts – back then it was fantastically entertaining improv, and Dragon Con wasn’t Dragon Con without Duck Dodgers.

The dealers’ room, exhibitors’ hall, art show and similar non-programming fare were at some point shifted to the Marriott Marquis, accessible by descending a steep staircase beside the Hyatt pool and crossing the street. They eventually hired an off duty officer to keep nerds from being run over.

When the Hyatt began actively discouraging people from congregating in the lobby for photo-ops, costumers shifted their activities to the lobby of the Marriott, which had far more room than they could ever fill (or so we thought).

 

2002 Attendance: 20,000+

This was the first year of the parade! If memory serves it was kind of rainy that day, so they jammed Nichelle Nichols into a van and had the door slid open and she rode down the street hunched down so she could see out to wave to people… it was very corny and very funny. My friend Davy and his fellow musketeers led the parade, carrying the Dragon*Con banner. Here’s the text from the announcement about the event:

 

2005 Attendance: 20,000+

After a 9 year absence, the Hilton finally rejoined the convention as a host hotel, creating what we think of today as the “main” convention hotel block. This was the year that my friend Todd Sayre responded to my challenge of joining me for a cardboard “Box Robot Flashmob Challenge”.

 

2006 Attendance: 25,000+

I issued a second flashmob challenge and we ended up marching in the Dragon Con parade along with the real stormtroopers.

 

2007 Attendance: 30,000+

This was the year that the Atlanta Fire Marshal began laying down the law about room capacity and line locations and general egress issues. He insisted that someone man the door at the pirate party and employ crowd control. The pirates just snuck people through a side door, after all they are pirates. That Fire Marshal would have had a mental breakdown if he’d seen the Marriott this past Saturday. As a matter of fact, is anyone from the fire department even checking on the convention anymore?

Elliott, as the original Chewboxxa, entered the costume contest at the Pirate Party.

 

2008 Attendance: 30,000+

The Sheraton was added as the fourth host hotel.

We infiltrated the Dawn contest with our cardboard troopers. It was glorious.

 

2009 Attendance: 30,000+

Our cardboard troopers went a week too early (video).

THIS was actually the first year the con partnered with the Georgia Aquarium for a cross-over event (I’d shown it as 2012 previously).

 

2010 Attendance: 30,000+

This was the year that everything changed – the year that Dragon Con “broke”. The football and race fans invaded the convention. A drunk girl wearing an LSU shirt grabbed my face and tried to jerk the cardboard helmet off my head. This was the year that there were widely distributed reports of drunken football fans groping our costumed women attendees. I published the article “Is Dragon*Con Broken?” that year. It was based on a conversation with Joseph Davis, Carl Cunningham, and Timmy O’Brien.

A laundry list of overflow hotels: W Hotel Midtown, W Hotel Downtown, the Hotel Midtown Atlanta, Regency Suites Hotel, the Hilton Atlanta Airport, The Renaissance Atlanta Hotel, Westin, Days Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Hotel & Suites-Buckhead, and the Twelve Hotel and Residences.

 

2011 Attendance: 46,000+

The Westin Peachtree Plaza was added as the fifth host hotel.

Big Mike and Tongo Hiti still played on Thursday nights there.

Dragon*Con began cracking down on party crashers. Woohoo!! Win.

 

2012 Attendance: 53,000+

For the very first time a limited number of Saturday Only memberships were made available through the Dragon*Con store, but but you couldn’t pick them up until Saturday.

 

2013 Attendance: 57,000+

The people who ran the convention bought out co-founder Ed Kramer, removing a long-standing taint of scandal, along with that darned asterisk. The Dealer’s Room was moved to Americasmart. Utter disaster. Chompers. ::shudder::

 

I wrote about the idea of breaking Dragon Con into pieces.

 

2014 Attendance: 62,000+

Admiral Ackbox and a cardboard AT-AT

This was the year that Steve Biroschik and Andy Richard marched in their massive Cardboard AT-AT costume!! It was incredible!! Screen grab shown here is from a video on the YouTube Channel Rage Quit Radio – here’s a link directly to the Cardboard AT-AT in motion! LOL

 

2016 Attendance: 77,000+

The Dragon Con parade was aired in Atlanta on WUPN for the first time. The broadcast cut off at the one hour mark but the parade dragged on for far longer (it was my 10th year marching in the parade!). The television cameras at the start of the parade seemed to throw the pace of the parade off. Here we are in our tired cardboard armor…

 

The Marriott Marquis replaced their signature carpet pattern (Boss Nova 85) with an awful new carpet pattern that I call “Skidmark“. A lot of people were too busy rescuing remnants of the Bossa Nova 85 pattern to worry about hating Skidmark, but they hated it. We all hated it. We hate it still.

 

 

Dragon Con 2017

On Labor Day Dragon Con issued a press release, saying that this year’s event had set a record attendance of “more than 80,000 people” – meaning that the convention had doubled in size (again) in less than a decade.

And anyone who was there will tell you – Dragon Con is busting at the seams.

They have stuffed 300 pounds of fun into a 5 pound sack.

We have achieved Peak Dragon Con.

On the same day as the press release about record attendance, Dragon Con’s Facebook page published a link to a survey about this year’s convention. The most frequent remarks in the comments section were for a cap on badge sales, with some calling for a total cessation of the sale of day passes. Other people detailed dangerous crowding and rude behavior, incidents that we have sadly become accustomed to since 2010.

 

 

Did You Have Fun?

That’s the question that I’ve been asking myself since Monday.

It may sound silly but I’m not always sure if I’m having a good time until something is over, usually because I’m too focused on worrying about all the details. It helps for me to talk to other people afterward to provide context to my experience just in case I’ve been focusing on all the wrong things.

For the first time in a decade I didn’t march in the parade. I was winning a fight with a summer cold and couldn’t risk a setback.

I limited my time at the convention when I went because it was frenetic, hot, humid, loud and smelly – the kind of thing best experienced while young and intoxicated.

That’s the other thing, I’m getting older and I just don’t have the thirst for nonsense I once had, and Dragon Con is nothing if not deliciously pure distilled nonsense. It is exactly the place for cunning plans and crazy capers.

No, I didn’t have fun like I once did at con, but I did enjoy the time I spent with my friends, with the con hotels as a backdrop.

Thea, a formerly avid costumer, explained “It’s so crowded now that you can’t find your friends anymore. You might walk right past them.”

Wade, once known as the first screen accurate Jack Sparrow costumer at Dragon Con (and one of the first to truly inhabit his character, not just wear the costume – this is how we get cosplay, people), noted that traditions were changing for costumers.

Costumers who once saved their best costumes to wear at night have flipped the script and get them out of the way in the daytime before the “mosh pit” begins to build in the lobbies at the main 3 hotels.

Thea added “There are so many costumers now that people are saturated – you don’t see the same level of appreciation given to the really great costumes.”

One of my best experiences this year was sitting on a low wall on the back patio of the Hilton, listening to my friend Boldar describe the lighting rigs that dancers were using on their twirling staffs and glowing bolos, while electronic dance music pulsed through the refreshingly cool and dry night air – underscoring how claustrophobic the atmosphere was in the lobbies of the regular convention hotels, where herds of nerds moved in giant swirling packs.

 

Will You Return Next Year?

That’s the million dollar question. I haven’t personally decided.

Some friends had the same old blast as ever and will continue going until they get too old to put on their costumes. Others are starting to lose their love for this convention and they recognize that it’s time to move on to smaller conventions where they can spend time with their friends, away from the insane crowding of Dragon Con.

Friends who already took a break from Dragon Con and devoted themselves to smaller cons for several years say that they now feel recharged and ready to once more tackle the bigger crowds of Dragon Con 2018 with gusto.

If you feel that you need to take a vacation from the snarl of Dragon Con and have never been to a smaller con, you owe it to yourself to check one out.

There are so many of them here in Atlanta, with many areas of specialization. The Southern Fandom Resource Guide’s calendar (bookmark their website!) currently lists 24 different conventions in Atlanta.

 

This is just a partial list from their website and doesn’t even include themed-pubcrawls or traveling for-profit conventions.

And don’t just stop with Atlanta. There are some well established small cons in neighboring states. Up in Chattanooga there’s a convention called ChattaCon that’s even older than Dragon Con – they’ll hold their 43rd annual event this coming January.

If you’re into gaming my friend Wes helps organize a convention south of Birmingham, Alabama, called Play On Con. It’s at a 4-H Convention Center along a river and features a variety of outdoor activities (but most of the nerds stay inside gaming and drinking).

I am actually the organizer of Cardboard*Con here in Atlanta. It’s the worlds first and only sci-fi convention devoted to the art of cardboard costuming and 2018 will mark our 9th year. It’s been a lot of good silly fun without all the crowding of Dragon Con. We’d love for you to join us next year, and the Badjs (that’s not a spelling error) are affordable.

Finally.

 

The Retired Dragons Con

I mentioned to some people at Dragon Con this year that we should book a block of rooms at the Marriott for the weekend prior to Dragon Con 2018. We could have room parties, go to dinners together, people could wear their costumes without fear of being crushed or ignored. All of the hotel bars will have their entire complement of furniture, so people can sit and talk with each other.

We can call it the Retired Dragons Con.

Who’s in?

17 thoughts on “Dragon Con Turns 31 – Is It Too Big Now?

  1. Doc

    27 years with Dragon Con, I’m not retiring just yet…but I read the article that linked here and you are dead on on many points. Within the next 18 to 24 months, you will likely hear the Sheraton as we know it will go away – it was sold early in 2017 and the new owners are looking at building a new atrium hotel on the spot. Peachtree Center Mall will undergo a renovation and will get a new hotel targeted to business travelers, and a new hotel will be constructed next to Megatron’s Butt Hole (Mercedez stadium) which will pull the sports fans away from our host hotels. How will is affect Dragon Con? Only time will tell – but with other comic and pop culture cons reporting record attendance – some double that of Dragon Con, it is unlikely that the growth will stop where it is…and since Dragon Con and MomoCon share resources, who knows how that partnership will affect the growth of both conventions.

    Reply
    1. Drewprops Post author

      Thanks! I probably didn’t find the earlier notice on the Wayback Machine. I’ll find it and update the article.

      Reply
      1. Drewprops Post author

        Guess what? It looks like the earliest event at the Georgia Aquarium was actually back in 2009! I’ll make the change :)

        Reply
  2. Rachel

    Thank you so much for this. Anytime I try and bring any issues up on the FB page, I get bombarded with negative responses, and told I am a terrible negative poster because I point out very real issues. I for one will not be going back, I’m not young and healthy enough , plus the con is attracting the wrong sort of people, people who just want to rave, and to hell with everyone else’s safety.

    Reply
  3. Jason Dole

    DrewDrops – there’s a lot to think about in here, looking forward to reading it all. BUT, first, gotta give you massive thanks for using the phrase “cunning plans and crazy capers” – as in: “Oh, Dave, you NEVER want cunning plans and crazy capers!”

    Reply
  4. God (my badge name for the past decade plus)

    Honestly, I feel like it feels less crowded since they added the America’s Mart buildings. The second one was my first and I’ve only missed a few in between. I hated the move to the America’s Mart at first buy I really like it now. The one year they did it earlier when Bloodhound Gang played was a total disaster but that was only building 3 which seemed miles away even though it’s only 3 blocks. With 3 new hotels coming and a lot more space in the Mart we could expand to I think we have plenty of room to grow.

    Reply
  5. Mr G

    Great piece! Sharing on FB. Also stealing the hilarious 2013 Dealer Room pic, let me know if you find the original artist.

    I wish you hadn’t done the “too big” bit in the title, but understand you want to drive traffic, LOL. Hope you decide to keep coming back!

    I am one of those in the “no more day passes” camp; I realize $85+ is more than twice what a day pass costs, but I have learned that, if you want to support a Con, you buy a pass for the whole con and THEN decide what days you want to attend. On the other hand, I am so against multiple VIP levels (and I know DC management is too) I can’t tell you. “Everybody pays for all four/five/six days” might lose us some ppl, but I think it would help.

    Also, if DC can shoulder the cost, using even more of AmericasMart seems to be a good stopgap solution for space. I can’t imagine how expensive it must be…

    BTW I am in the process of putting together, at long last, a DC-centric doctoral dissertation, and I will be citing the HECK out of your post, so THANKS!

    Reply
  6. Craig

    I kept going back hoping to relive the fun times of years past, but this year clinched it for me. I won’t be returning. I have no desire to ha e my head split open and nearly being killed by drunk jacka$$es hurling chairs from the 10th floor of the Marriott into the Atrium like those poor ladies that were hit this year.
    The crowds have become too big and too full of inconsiderate or outright hostile attendees.

    Reply
  7. BA3000

    2017 was is my 1st Dragon Con. I stayed at the Westin and attended the Aquarium event. I stayed away most of the time from the Hilton and Marriott (epic photos only) and braved the Hyatt on my well planned out panels (2-3 per day). I went to AmericasMart on several days but had to leave quickly on Saturday as that was ridiculous. I overall loved the event. I would attend again. I understand I missed KEY dragoncon events but since I’ve never been to those I don’t know what I missed. If they take away the Saturday guest pass that would help. Also I was annoyed by the parents and their giant strollers. I have four children myself but if you go to dragoncon with kids in a stroller YOU are an abomination. I stood for the parade but mostly dealt with parents and kids trying to push me to the back. Hundreds of kids were there crying because they could not see. If you go to the parade with kids get there at 7am or go home.

    Reply
  8. Betty

    The years it shows flat attendance are bogus. There were more people than allowed in the hotels by fire code so they only reported the top number. I was staff during those years and cab tell you it grew every year. It’s just too big when you spend four hours in line and STILL don’t get into an event

    Reply
    1. Drewprops Post author

      Awesome! Thanks Roxy, I’ll update the post to give credit. So hilarious. And they really did fix this one in the following years, don’t you think?

      Reply
      1. Roxy Bisquaint

        Yes, much improved once they moved it from AM1 to AM2. The only problem with vendors now is the sheer volume of people trying to squeeze through the aisles. And the AC. It was like a freezer in some spots (and in the entire comic art section)!

        I’ve been going to Dragon Con since 2008 and despite the massive growth over the last 10 years, I still have fun. Between the increasing crowd size and… getting older, I just find myself adapting year by year. I spend less time in the Marriott on Friday and Saturday nights, I spend less time in vendors, I go to fewer panels or try to find smaller panels that sound interesting. That keeps the overall enjoyment going for me and, by Monday, I’m always sad that it’s over.

        Reply

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