As discussed previously, Dragon Con is my first major foray into all things Geek, both a hazing and an initiation, if you will. This ongoing multi-part journal recounts my experience and that of my two younger sisters (also first-timers).
Day One, Part Two
As we cross from the Hilton toward the Marriott I’m trying to make a mental map of the convention, as looking at floorplans the week before proved meaningless without context. Yet in what will be a recurring pattern I have no idea exactly where we are in relation to where we want to go.
See, the hotels have given over what must be ALL of their convention space, which means multiple floors of conference rooms, ballrooms, and general open areas connecting them. This, times five hotels. Some space is above the street level, some below, and instead of helpful names like ‘Floor 1, Floor 2’ etc, they are labeled ‘Marquis Level, Atrium Level, Conference Level, Ballroom Level’ and so forth, telling you nothing of their relative position to each other. The two skywalks don’t even come in on the same floor of the Marquis, in case the rest of that was too straightforward.
Thus we came off the relatively free-flowing skyway into the crush of the Marriott, and I was instantly confused. Also a recurring pattern.
Now if Dragon Con has a central hub—a rich, chewy center—then it’s the main lobby area of the Marriott Marquis (which is helpfully called the Atrium Level). It’s not just that the Marriott is the middle of the three connected hotels, it also has the largest open space, including a view down into the lower floors which makes it seem larger. In the other four hotels people are generally on their way somewhere or are taking a breather and making opportunistic chatter.
The Marriott, however, is the place to go if you want to do nothing but soak up the atmosphere, chat up new friends, and photograph or be photographed. Or collect on a bounty.
Whatever rudimentary map my sleep-addled brain has been drawing is discarded when we collide with the wave of humanity. It’s not just the number of bodies that is disorienting, though. It’s the energy.
How to explain? Have you ever been to a concert for a band you like, or cheered in a packed stadium/arena for your favorite sports team? You are surrounded by other people who are fans like you, and their cumulative excitement is tangible; you are part of it, and it amplifies your own excitement. It’s the difference between seeing a movie at a packed midnight premiere and seeing the same movie at a Monday matinee. Same movie, different experience. There is some sort of electric pressure that the shared anticipation creates, and if you’re at all sensitive to it then it’s as perceptible as the din or the heat or the endless parade of costumes.
Now I didn’t bring a tripod or any other tool that would let me make a ‘real’ panoramic shot. However, I had just gotten a new phone with one of those much-advertised panoramic features, where one sweeps the phone-camera along the horizon and magic! you get a stitched-together panorama of whatever. The limitations are obvious for moving subjects (how many times does that one guy show up? 12?), but at least you can form a better mental picture of what we saw.
And all I’m thinking is that it’s still during working hours on the very first day. How much more crazy is this place going to get?
In truth, this is as empty as I would see the place until Monday.
Now while the crowd provides a lot of the energy that ultimately makes the con fun, we’ve already seen the enormous drawbacks. I’d been warned before that panels tend to fill up, so it’s not uncommon for people to wait in line for the entire duration of the panel before the one they want to see.
The panels schedule:
To explain: by default panels take one hour, with a 30-minute break between the next set of panels. So, there are panels at 10:00am that last until 11, a 30-minute interlude, then another round of panels begin at 11:30am, and so on. Some are longer (especially at night), but that’s the general rule. However, even without a line to your specific panel, if you just came out of one and your next one is several buildings over, you might have a task ahead of you to make it in time. Even when the crowd is not in your line, they make it harder to get where you want to be on time.
So, having missed panels already we decide to take no chances and cut our gawking short. The panel we’ve selected is in the Tolkien’s Middle-Earth track, and is called ‘Smaug Con: Tolkien and His Dragons.’ I suppose I’m in no position to mock someone else’s pun. Anyway we figure that it’s Dragon Con and maybe something on dragons would be as introductory an experience as we can ask for. The Tolkien track is probably one of the most venerable of them all, seems a good place to start.
Back up and tell us about ‘Tracks’ you idiot
Wait, what are ‘tracks’ you ask? Well I’m glad you did, but you could be nicer about it. Let’s explain it now and be done with it.
A ‘track’ in convention-speak is basically a subject or heading under which panels/events can be grouped. Each track’s panels typically take place in the same location the entire weekend, and mostly are one panel per time slot, so that one could–if desired–go to all the panels of their favorite track over the course of the 4-day programming. Because they (mostly) don’t move, you can actually gauge the popularity of a track by the size of the room it occupies.
Dragon Con has about 40 distinct tracks based on a shared subject or medium. Everything from Alternate History and Urban Fantasy to Puppetry (yes, puppetry) and Young Adult Literature. Several authors/universes have their own tracks: Star Wars, Star Trek, Star Gate (I sense a pattern), Tolkien’s Middle-Earth (oh nevermind), and Joss Whedon’s various shows. The ‘BritTrack’ seems to be about half Doctor Who-related as well. Some are subject-oriented and not specific to a medium (Horror) while some are the opposite, and are specific to a medium instead of a subject (Podcasting).
Confusing this neat arrangement, however, are the ‘tracks’ called Main Programming, Live Performances, and Workshops, which span all sorts of genres that already have a track, and indeed often show up organized in both places. Live Performances and Workshops are exactly what they sound like. Main Programming, on the other hand, is basically anything that needs one of the huge ballroom-turned-amphitheater spaces that the convention uses to host whatever is really popular. Everything from costume contests (of which there are several) to famous personalities holding forth to Dragon Con ‘events’ like the live wrestling show (seriously), or opening ceremonies.
Main Programming not being a ‘real’ track it has no compunction about holding multiple panels in any one time slot. Indeed, that is probably part of how they manage the crowds. What does all this mean? Among other things it means you absolutely cannot go to everything you might want to. Even if there were 5 of you. During this 2:30 Friday afternoon slot where we are about to attend our first panel? There are 51 OTHER panels going on at the same time. Yeah.
On the plus side, that means 51 other places the crowd can go besides where we want to be. But we head there an hour early anyway.
Oh, but far more pressing is that it’s been a long time since food. We had grand delusions about stopping for groceries on the way in, as our hotel room had a full fridge/freezer, oven, stove, etc. and we didn’t want to be at the mercy of the convention vendors. As I said over here in my bit about misconceptions, though, it was quite reasonable, and the three of us picked up lunch with drinks and a beer for $27. Though I think the beer was a third of that.
We find the room for the Tolkien track, which is on the other side of some hallways from the main lobbies, making it surprisingly quiet after the lobby. We sit down to eat. A line already exists but it’s small and seated, always a good sign. We realize quickly that we have been standing and moving for most of the past 3 hours. For the first among many times this weekend the tax on our energy from so much walking, carrying, heat, and sleeplessness threatens our ability to rub two thoughts together. Just the thing when one is about to listen to a largely academic lecture!
Now, as I mentioned, some people choose a track or two they are very interested in and stay with it the whole weekend. Most have the same room and often the same moderators, with only guests and topics changing, and in this way some loose camaraderie is formed between audience and participants. It’s clear soon that some of our queue-mates fall into this category and are huge Tolkien fans. A troop of elaborate costumed Middle-Earth residents slowly gather in our area, each a different character, and I get the sense some pre-convention coordination was at work here. Here’s one dressed as Tauriel, the invented-for-the-movie Mirkwood Elf.
Only later do I realize she actually has an arrow nocked and drawn. Apparently my sleep-deprived lizard brain has turned off its instinct for self-preservation.
We get in and sit (a little cramped) towards the back. Most of the seating gets filled, so I’m glad we’ve opted to come early. Now to relax and take in our first convention panel, a mere 10 hours after beginning our journey.
[Note: The next part is a thorough recount of the panel. I’m not going to do this for all of them, just the first one to give an idea of what the panels are like. If that’s still not your cup of tea, the Journal continues in Part Four and you can skip the panel description entirely]