Convention Reviews

DragonCon 2021 – A Weekend to Remember

Posted: September 15, 2021 at 8:59 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

In the wake of this global pandemic, our social landscape has been forever changed. We strive for some kind of normalcy, but 17 months is a very long time. Nothing is quite as it was in the days before Covid. Comic, gaming, and entertainment conventions are now seen in a whole new light. Nerds have flocked to the digital space, creating massive online events and flooding Discord with new servers and communities. For the first time in a year and a half, DragonCon brought us back together in person.

Many people still couldn’t risk it, even with the precautions put in place. In an effort to contain the spread of the virus, DragonCon enforced several precautions throughout the convention. The first line of defense was proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test. Every major con has adopted this policy, which will undoubtedly help against the virus spreading throughout the weekend of close-quarters interactions. During the con, mask policies were enforced and cleaning crews stood by to sanitize every surface in the hotels and nearby hot spots. In addition, attendance was cut in half to reduce crowd sizes.

The measures taken at DragonCon seemed to have worked. As of writing this, there have been very few reported cases after the convention. Many people have reported testing negative, including myself. Plenty of minor injuries and bad memories for some people, but hey, it’s DragonCon. I’m just glad it even happened.

Thursday

My copilot James and I spent most of Thursday on the road in a surprisingly clear (both weather and traffic) drive. As is tradition for any con in the south, we made a stop at the beloved BoJangles for some chicken and a pack of Bo-berry biscuits for the weekend. We arrived at the Marriott Marquis late afternoon, just as everyone was discussing dinner and party plans for the evening.

We were immediately greeted with familiar sights for the first day of a big con. Plenty of people already in costume strutting around in all their nerdy glory, and a mass of guests checking into the hotel. Our room was reserved by the Carr brothers (@CarrBrosProps) long in advance, who managed to book and supply rooms to many of our St. Louis crew. The hotel situation was weird this year. It was a confusing combination of 2020 bookings, cancellations, and re-bookings. I have to applaud the Marriott staff for keeping everything straight.

In no time, James and I were checked in and unpacking our gear. Our roommates, Mandii (@Mandi_Morbid) and Vix (@VampyrVixen) had already donned their first costumes of the weekend. Vix and her Atlanta friend Sara (@SexyAntagonist) were in their vault suits and Mandii was dressed for the first big party of the weekend, the Bunny Hutch. Only one thing stopped us from joining the fun: picking up badges. Everyone else in my room had to stand in line with the general badge pickup, which is always a long wait. It’s also a good opportunity to see other people in costume and make some new friends.

While they grabbed their badges, I made my way down to the lower levels of the Hyatt to pick up my press pass. Here is where I had my first instance of mask-recognition error. One member of the DragonCon press staff looked EXACTLY like Justin Staggs (@JustBryyce) from the cheeks up. My brain went completely off the rails trying for a moment before realizing it wasn’t him. This case of mistaken identity would happen many times throughout the weekend, as I’m sure it did for many veterans of DragonCon.

After getting my badge and reading material from the press room, I was delighted by a group of familiar faces. The Hyatt lobby was a gathering spot for several of my best con friends, including  Stormy (@Tiny_Villain_Cosplay), Ted (@tengutri), Jenn (@Jenna_Say_What), Sergei (@SergeiKay), and Christian (@ShadowKillion). The joy was overwhelming, cutting through my fatigue and anxiety. It felt normal again. I found an internet friend, Dusty (@ElegantFeatherDuster), cosplaying as Ezra Bridger along with a Kanan, and enlisted a nearby Chopper for a nice Rebels group shot.

During this time, I was also able to sample the Dragon’s Nectar. Monks Meadery, a local Atlanta establishment, created mead specifically for DragonCon. This session mead was made with passion fruit, hibiscus, and dragon fruit. It had a beautiful tart, fruity taste with floral notes. Buying a can in the Hyatt lobby was pretty pricey though, so it was my only can of the weekend. Between my roommates and all the other friends we had at the convention, we never had to seek out a drink.

Back to the Marriott lobby, I paid a visit to some rooms. Justin and the Carr brothers were on the third floor, along with several other St. Louis friends including Art, Nikki, and the Meyer brothers (Greg & Dan). Literally all of them were getting into costume, even Justin! It didn’t take long to succumb to cosplay envy. With less than a couple hours before the Bunny Hutch party, I returned to my room on the 31st floor to get into costume. The rest of my crew was back in the room, having retrieved their badges and making final preparations for the evening. About 20 minutes, a few adrenaline-pumping songs, and a whole lot of Mehron body paint later, I was ready to walk the wasteland as the Sole Survivor from Fallout 4. Then I made one of my biggest mistakes of the weekend… I left my camera in the room.

We encountered several more con friends on the way to the Bunny Hutch. First, literally right at the bottom of the elevator, we ran into Moss and Roy (@UnofficialMossandRoy) in their classic IT Crowd personas. As a huge fan of that show, I have to stop to say hi to these guys every time I spot them at a con. I know a lot of my con friends feel the same. At the front of the line for the Bunny Hutch, waiting with a whole bunch of St. Louis friends, we also ran into Rebecca (@LittleLionheart.Cosplay) as Number Five with Dolores and Belle (@wildcardcosplay) in a Vault Tec bunny suit. Seeing all these friends I met at previous DragonCons, it finally felt like DragonCon.

The Bunny Hutch party at the Hilton was as lively as I remember, even with the lower capacity and masks. DragonCon staff was on high alert, checking for masks and making sure everyone was safe. They even set up a table of hand sanitizers, antibacterial wipes, and disinfectant spray for people to take. I was among the first to grab some of the supplies, and within moments the table had been stripped clean. It was pretty clear that many of the guests were taking precautions as seriously as the staff.

Unfortunately, the fatigue of the day got the better of me. A long weekend ahead, I decided not to drink any more and conserve my energy to get through the night. Word of a Loki party hit our ears, and we decided to check it out since it was in the Marriott. Mandii, James, and I went back to our hotel. We met Scott (@WildKarde) as Ghostbuster Loki on the way and hooked up with the rest of our crew, Vix and Sara. We got close enough to take a look at the Loki party, but it was already winding down for the evening. The horns of several variants could be seen through the doors. We decided it best to call it a night and give Sara an escort back to her hotel.

James split from the group in an attempt to fix some deactivated room keys while Mandii, Vix, and I walked Sara back to her hotel. It was a bit further, and bloodier, than expected. Let’s just say that alcohol, large boots, and uneven sidewalks don’t mix. I was very happy to have those antibacterial wipes handy. After the late night walk and a quick Uber ride back, we were all more than ready for bed.

Friday

Sometimes you don’t even have to get drunk to experience a hangover. Friday morning at DragonCon was a lot rougher than I expected. Despite my hydration efforts from the previous night, I awoke to a massive headache and fatigue. Luckily my first event was early afternoon, so I had time to recover before donning my new costume. During quarantine, I was able to finally watch all of Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra. While I loved both series, there was one character that stood out to me. Tenzin, the son of Aang voiced by the brilliant J.K. Simmons, appealed to me as a new cosplay. I even grew out my beard to do so, which was of course covered by a mask for most of the day.

This being my first time, I enlisted Vix’s help with my airbender tattoos. We drew outlines on my forearms and head, then filled them in with the same blue body paint I use for Pumat Sol. It worked perfectly, and I was recognized by many con-goers on my way to and from the Avatar group shoot. I’m very new to the Avatar fandom, and was graciously welcomed with open arms by the fans assembled at the nearby Hardy Ivy Park. The shoot was a whole lot of fun. All of the Korra cosplayers wanted me to take “disappointed dad Tenzin” photos with them, playing to the characters’ relationship throughout the show. 

As the group shoot ended, I spotted the insanely talented photographer Alex (@ALeeStudios) taking photos in the park also. This chance meeting certainly worked out in my favor, because Alex took a few photos of me while we waited for her next appointment. If you’ve seen her photos of me as Pumat Sol at GenCon, you’ll understand why I’m extremely excited to see these shots of Tenzin.

Two hours in the early afternoon sun was making things a bit toasty for my bald head, so I went back to the Marriott to unburden myself and cool off. There I met James in the room, who hadn’t seen any of our Raleigh friends yet. We walked around in search of them until I got word that Stormy and Ted were in their room setting up for photos. We took the opportunity. There were a lot of things that worried me about this Tenzin cosplay, more than I care to list here. I have to say though, Ted’s incredible photos made me feel silly for ever worrying. One of them turned out so well, we edited it right there in the hotel room with Jarod (@JarodKearneyPhotography) and I uploaded it to Instagram immediately.

By the time we wrapped up the photos, dinner time was rapidly approaching. We remained in Stormy and Ted’s room as several other friends came and went, including Jenn, Sergei, Justin, and Christian. Hanging out in friends’ rooms is always part of the DragonCon experience. Ted and Stormy having a room on the second floor meant it was easily accessible via stairs and no one had to play the elevator game. As afternoon shifted to evening, we finally made our way down to the lobby and eventually left for the familiar food court. After my first DragonCon, I thought that the food court would always be a long wait. The buffet style Japanese restaurant Yami Yami would have lines half way down the skybridge. At this hour well past the dinner rush, we were able to go through completely unimpeded. I was so hungry I would’ve eaten anything at that point, but that sushi, chicken, and fried rice really hit the spot.

I was quickly reminded why I don’t eat big meals at conventions. After dinner, we went back to the room to relax for a few moments before the night’s festivities. As soon as I got Tenzin’s robe off, I was unconscious on the bed… total food coma. Vix and Mandii had come by and left. I didn’t wake up until after James had left to join others from the St. Louis crew for partying. It being Friday night, I knew the party would last well into the morning hours. Critical Role was at noon the next day, so a late night wasn’t the best idea. As I was weighing my options, Vix returned to the room ready to call it a night. Vix and I haven’t had much time to hang out at cons yet, so I decided to stay and relax for the evening. It wasn’t long before Mandii and James came back as well. We all knew Saturday would be quite a busy day.

Saturday

Even though we took it easy the night before, Saturday morning got to a slow start. My roommates had found the DragonCon parade on the hotel TV by the time I got up. The parade is a centerpiece of the weekend and I’ve only been able to attend once, back at my first DragonCon in 2017. As a safety measure, the parade was limited to only guest attendees. That, combined with the fact that there were no Saturday-only passes, made for a considerably smaller event. Since the Critical Role shoot was at noon, I didn’t get to see much of it.

From the moment I got out of bed, I was engaged in a furious battle against body paint. Without an airbrush, getting blue for Pumat Sol is very tedious. I had only put on Pumat once during the pandemic, and had forgotten just how long it takes to get an even coat of blue. If Vix hadn’t helped out with my neck and eyes, I probably wouldn’t have made it to the Hilton in time. The excitement of gathering with Critters again was only topped by the excitement of wearing my new costume piece.

Pumat Sol will always have a special place among my cosplay. This year, I cemented that place even further by commissioning Joannah of Terrible Trio Creations (@Terrible_Trio_Creations) to create a glorious overcoat. She did not disappoint. This is by far the most luxurious piece of clothing I own. My humble merchant was transformed into a prosperous businessman. The only thing that tempered my excitement was knowing how hot it would be outside.

In my rush, I forgot Pumat’s goggles, jewelry, and bracers… but I got to the shoot on time. It was a smaller group than we’re used to, but the mood was just as vibrant. Almost all of the characters were represented, unfortunately no Grog or Caduceus to be found. I understood why though, already sweating all over my face paint. Despite the dread of dripping blue onto my fancy new coat, the shoot got off to a great start. As we got to single-character shots, we realized there was a guest. While taking photos of the only Scanlan cosplayer, a man jumped up onto the stairs asking if he could be in it as well. It was none other than Sam Riegel! The Critical Role cast member had come to DragonCon to visit and thank us for the support and love throughout the pandemic. Many fans rushed to take selfies and thank him for coming. The energy was through the roof.

These Critical Role meetups are incredible. All of these familiar faces enthusiastically sharing their love for the characters always makes for a memorable experience. These wonderful weirdos are all very talented and make everyone feel like they’re part of the show. I got to catch up with Steph (@m42sc) as Beauregard and Vic (@ViciousFrockery) as Vax’ildan, both of which had insanely impressive cosplays. Christian and I hung out as long as we could until the sun threatened to start baking everyone. By the time we went back inside, Christian got word from Stormy and Ted that they were setting up for more photos.

Not only did I want to get some good photos of Pumat’s new coat, I desperately needed a few minutes to cool off. I got plenty of time with the wig and coat off before and after getting shots of Pumat, as Jenn showed up with her Tik Tok crew. Each original character in her group looked like they just stepped out of a horror movie. They channeled the crazy and the spooky for a few photos before going back out to the convention. By the time they’d left, the room was invaded by bounty hunters. Matthew and Roman of Creative Force Films (@CreativeForceFilms), the minds behind the Star Wars fan film Scorekeeper, had transformed into Boba Fett and Bossk. Everyone crowded around to take photos of the two bounty hunters as Diablo, a member of Jenn’s Tik Tok crew, provided some smoke effects with a vape pen. 

After following the Scorekeeper crew down to the floor for a quick lap, I realized that Pumat wouldn’t hold up for much longer. I couldn’t go five minutes without sweating and had become increasingly worried about dirtying my new coat. Since it would take a while to get out of the paint, I decided to call it a day for Pumat and return to the room. Surprisingly, the shower didn’t take nearly as long as it usually does. The longest was well over an hour, when I did casual Pumat at the 2019 DragonCon. With the mask and full coat, I got away with much less paint this time.

With the quick cleanup, there was plenty of time to accompany Mandii as Harley Quinn to the DC Villains photoshoot. We arrived at the Hilton patio with plenty of time to spare, so we checked out the other shoots happening, the Horror Movie and Vikings group meetups. The DC Villains shoot had a decent turnout, but was not the best organized shoot I’ve seen. I don’t claim to be an expert, but I’ve seen a whole lot of group shoots in my four years at conventions. For any kind of group meeting of cosplayers, it’s best to have one person to direct the cosplayers and one to coordinate with the photographers. It’s also wise to listen to the people that show up to be a part of the event and regard everyone with respect.

My attention was quickly taken by the arrival of the Carrs, the Meyers, and Justin as the DC Villains shoot ended. In another stunning surprise, Justin was once again in cosplay! Justin and the Meyers were dressed as Mario, Luigi, and Waluigi in tactical armor. The Carrs were debuting their epic new cosplays, Captain Falcon and Ganondorf. People flocked toward us to take photos and videos. With Mandii’s shoot ended and all of us hungry, we left our costumed friends to meet up with Vix for dinner.

Saturday’s search for dinner held some disappointment, as a favorite local diner had closed their dining room and were only taking carryout orders at the door. Once Vix got ready as Benny from Fallout New Vegas, we left in search of a short line in the food court. Unlike Friday, we arrived during the dinner rush and were unable to find any short lines. On sheer curiosity, I led the group to Gibney’s Pub. On the past two trips to DragonCon, we were unable to get a table at Gibney’s without a long wait. It was relatively crowded, but we were pleasantly surprised to find an open table immediately upon entering.

And here’s where I once again make a mistake with food. The fish and chips plate at Gibney’s was fantastic, but it knocked me out as soon as we all got back to the room. By the time I woke up, I realized it was past midnight and saw a whole lot of activity on the Facebook message groups. I got back into street clothes, mixed a Johnny Silverhand (Tequila Old Fashioned made with chili lime syrup and topped with beer), and walked down to the hotel lobby to find friends. It only took a few minutes to find a bunch of friends, including Scott, the Carrs, Justin, and Steve (@SKSProps). 

Not long after, I was called for rescue. Add rum buckets to an already high-stress and anxiety-inducing situation, mistakes become easy and people can get hurt. Over the rest of the night, everyone slowly made it back to the room in one state or another. We shared con experiences and life stories, all looking to let off some steam after a long day. 

Sunday

We had very simple plans for Sunday. Recover from the days prior, take a walk through the wasteland, and meet up with friends for dinner. The majority of the morning was spent in the room with Vix and Mandii while James walked around. I was thankful for the lazy morning, getting to catch up on sleep before we went looking for lunch. It felt like many people were slow to rouse after the late evening prior. We grabbed some sandwiches from the hotel’s convenience shop and retreated to the room for more recovery time.

The morning and lunch in the room with the crew gave me renewed energy. I went down to the lobby of the Marriott for another quick lap to take some photos. There I met a bunch of the Raleigh friends, including Stormy and Ted, Sergei, and award winning horror filmmaker Chris Moore (@ILikeFilms). Everyone was crowded around Matt and Roman as Boba and Bossk for their second outing. I got some more photos and made plans with Stormy and Ted for the Fallout shoot.

Vix and I gave ourselves more than enough time to get into our cosplay. I took extra care in bloodying myself up with body paint and blood gel for this shoot. Vix rocked some killer style and scars, donning badass homemade armor as a Legion Explorer. On the way down to the Hilton, we stopped in Stormy and Ted’s room to get a few final photos in their hotel room studio. Once again, the photos turned out amazing. The shots of Vix were incredibly intimidating, capturing the badass nature of their New Vegas character. Ted has shot my vault dweller before, so I know those will turn out well.

In the week leading up to the convention, I set out to add another enhancement to my Fallout costume. My Pip-Boy hadn’t worked since GenCon 2018, and I hadn’t touched it in over a year. I figured since it didn’t work anymore, I could weather it without concern for damage. Well, I tried the power button just for kicks… and surely enough, it booted up like nothing was ever wrong. I was stunned, live on Twitch as I discovered this for the first time. So not only was I now wearing a freshly weathered Pip-Boy (which fits the rest of my costume much better), but it was playing music again! Our Fallout crew was able to listen to Diamond City Radio the whole time.

This Fallout shoot, coordinated by the Fallout Tacticians cosplay group, may have been the biggest group photoshoot of the weekend. Vault dwellers, raiders, rangers, and wastelanders of all types were able to completely fill the stairs on the Hilton patio. There was an impressive showing of New Vegas cosplays, representing both the NCR and Caesar’s Legion. Vix and Sarah fit right in with the Legion, while I got joyfully lost in the sea of blue vault suits. I have to thank the photographers and coordinators of all the shoots I was involved with at DragonCon. They were very accommodating of my jumping back and forth around the cameras.

Everyone was looking forward to Sunday night’s dinner choice. By the time we finished with the Fallout shoot, we were on the tail end of the dinner rush. Our apocalyptic crew returned to the Marriott to unite with Stormy, Ted, Christian, and James. Together, we all journeyed beneath the food court to Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken. We were introduced to this place in 2019 and were quite excited to go back. Stormy, Ted, and Christian got a table nearby while my crew returned to our room so I could bring Mandii her food. I knew this chicken would probably put me in another food coma, so I didn’t mind eating in the room as well. It was a good choice too, because we found the costume masquerade on DragonCon TV and were able to watch it live. Between the delicious spicy chicken, the entertaining masquerade, and great company, it was a welcome relaxing evening that actually got me back into a party mood. I knew most people wouldn’t be up too late, so Vix and I went down to the lobby to hang out with a few friends for goodnights and goodbyes. As the night ended at about 2am, we packed up the room for an early departure the next morning.

Monday

Monday morning started a bit earlier than I would have liked. After the late night goodbyes and packing, I gladly would have taken the opportunity to sleep in before a nine-hour drive. Vix and Mandii were out very early, just as James and I were starting our final packing and cleanup. We called for a bellhop as soon as we could, and managed to pack up my car surprisingly fast. It was a bit too fast for the last few things we had planned before leaving.

Checkout was at 11am and the vendor hall opened at 10, so we went back to the room to hang out for a bit before going shopping. Just like last DragonCon and so many other cons before, we had a chance meeting with a few friends on the way out of the con. Justin, along with the Carrs and the Meyers, were preparing for their drives back as well. James and I then easily made it into the vendor hall, which is one of the best parts about sticking around on a Monday. Throughout the weekend, the line to get into the four-story hall would wrap around the block. There was no line at all on Monday morning.

We zig-zagged through the aisles, taking in all of the art, swag, crafts, and all kinds of nerdy goods. Many items caught my eye, but I had to be conservative with my spending. Just the morning before, I had reserved a room for C2E2 in December. Even with my low budget, I found some great items worth buying. We had another chance meeting with Chris Moore, also on one final trek through the shopping center of DragonCon. With talks of future con plans and goodbyes, we moved on to find Stormy and Ted on the upper levels. We finished the whole building, and probably spent way too much time checking out all of the insects, bones, and furs at the Art Afterlife Skeletons booth.

For our final stop on the way out of Atlanta, we accepted an invitation from Stormy and Ted to join them for one of their DragonCon rituals. We went to Roasters Rotisserie, a southern style chicken and barbecue place about fifteen minutes away from the heart of DragonCon. As we sat down for lunch, I noted it was very much an “Avengers eating shawarma after the battle”  kind of moment. I realize I had a lot of fried chicken over the DragonCon weekend, and I think I have to say Roasters was the best. I had to limit myself to survive the upcoming drive, but I could have eaten everything they set in front of me. The amazing food and great company put a nice cap on the epic weekend. I got some huge cookies on the way out of Roasters, and they didn’t survive me writing this.

The drive back was a test of sheer will, but we were lucky to have good weather and little traffic for the majority of the drive. Energy drinks are mostly poison, but I had to crack one to help me get through the long, tired journey home.

Conclusion

Many approached this weekend with trepidation. Anxiety and stress ran rampant with the threat of Covid and the lack of social interaction over the past year and a half. Despite all the weight of the pandemic, DragonCon 2021 provided a thoroughly enjoyable experience. The staff was on-point, professional, and safe. The overwhelming majority of con-goers were friendly and welcoming. The con’s programming, group meetups, and parties all gave us what we’d been patiently awaiting for two years.

There are already plans for more DragonCons. Mandii and Vix learned many valuable lessons from their first experience, and I learned a lot about what to expect at conventions in the near future. We spent a good portion of Sunday evening discussing what we’d like to do for next year if it happens. First plan for next year is swag. Over the weekend, we all discovered a DragonCon “Swag n Seek” group that was trading and hiding small trinkets around the convention. I had meant to do badge ribbons for Critical Role and Fallout, but completely forgot about it in the months leading up to the convention. That mistake will be rectified and ribbons will absolutely be with me at future conventions.

And that’s all I’ve got for DragonCon2021. Thank you to the staff and to everyone that made this glorious event possible. My next con will be C2E2, taking on Chicago in the December cold. It should be fun!

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