Dragon Con director anticipates fun, food and fanfare as Atlanta's largest convention returns

A man cosplaying Batman high fives kids along the Dragon Con 2018 parade route in downtown Atlanta.

Cory Hancock / For WABE

While working as a first-time volunteer in 2006, Dragon Con Director of Media Engagement Dan Carroll experienced a unique guest encounter that could only be described as out of this world.

“The body of Darth Vadar, David Prowse came up and asked me to help him find the body of Chewbacca, Peter Mayhew, and I was hooked,” Carroll said.

For Carroll, the hook has still managed to stay firmly on the line as he goes into his 14th year as an official spokesperson for the event.

The return of the annual five-day convention has garnered international recognition in both social media activity and attendance rates, with Carroll estimating over 60,000 visitors to the festivities this upcoming weekend.

The Con, best described by previous celebrity panel guest Jewel Staite as “a normal comic book convention mixed in with the Vegas strip,” begins Thursday and stretches various events throughout the AmericasMart campus and five “host” hotels connected within the metro Atlanta area until Labor Day, Sept. 5.

This holiday weekend will be the first time since 2019 that the convention will run in full capacity, as well as the long-awaited return of the Dragon Con parade.

“It’s a little emotional for us to see Dragon Con come back because it’s just another indication of Atlanta being where it’s supposed to be,” said Walter Woods, a 10-year Dragon Con veteran and the director of marketing for Hyatt Regency Atlanta, a longtime host partner for Dragon Con.

Two R2-D2s roll around the Hyatt Regency lobby at Dragon Con 2018 in downtown Atlanta, Friday, Aug. 31, 2018. (Cory Hancock/WABE)

“We have 1,260 guest rooms, the second-largest number of guest rooms within the city, and they will all be completely full.”

Carroll, whose title includes leading the responsibilities of coordinating and arranging interviews regarding the event, is one of 2,300 volunteers determined to make the dream experience of cosplayers, comic fans and cartoon fanatics into a satisfying and safe reality.

The fanfare and continued success of Dragon Con, which started in 1987 with an attendance of less than 2,000, has been a surprise not only to attendees and local entrepreneurs, but to Carroll and Woods themselves.

 “It wasn’t that long ago when Labor Day was pretty sleepy in Atlanta, people went to the mountains, people went to the beach,” Woods said. “(Dragon Con) was a sleepy smallish event that came to the hotel…and it has become such a huge part of the culture of our city.”

Blast from Dragon Con past: Batman and the Riddler — aka Ray Deforest and Jim McGinnis — march down Peachtree Street during the 2006 Dragon Con Parade through downtown Atlanta.

The preparation for Dragon Con 2022 was an extensive process, with certain decisions signed off on before Dragon Con 2021.

“Someone who’s new to the team asked me when we make certain decisions and I said ‘October,’” Carroll said.

“There is never an offseason for Dragon Con,” Woods said. “An event this important and big, we’re planning all year … we’re planning Dragon Con 2023 right now as we speak.”

One of the major components in shaping this year’s festivities was safety. Although Carroll noted an overall decrease in COVID-19 protocol guidelines within the past two years, Dragon Con guests will be required to wear face masks while inside any of the the host hotels and additional convention space venues.

In addition, Dragon Con will adhere to increased social distancing and have online-only ticket sales. And the capacity, while still more significant compared to last year’s minimized event, will be reduced compared to pre-COVID years.

“We learned a lot in 2021,” Carroll said. “Taking COVID-19 precautions, even though many people say that the pandemic is over, was very important.”

Carroll said that due to their efforts, out of the 40,000 attendees last year, there were only nine recorded cases of COVID-19.

“We have to continue keeping people safe and having fun,” he said. “With the safety protocols we have this year … it’s good middle ground. We’re not going to require COVID-19 vaccines to be verified.”

With mass shootings on the rise this year throughout the country, as well as Music Midtown’s decision to cancel festivities last month due to potential gun violence, Woods and Carroll have made it their primary goal to ensure the well-being of their guests.

Dragon Con Director of Media Relations Dan Carroll (left) and Hyatt Regency Atlanta Director of Marketing Walter Woods (right) have worked for over a year to develop the itinerary for Dragon Con 2022. (Kenny Murry/WABE)

“The safety our of attendees is one of our core principals, and the most important one because that’s the one on what everything else depends on,” Carroll said. “Our procedures and processes are not things that I can talk about, because they’re effective and throughout the convention.”

One of Carroll’s proudest accomplishments with Dragon Con has been being able to provide all who come to their event with a space to enjoy each other’s company and the events offered without fear of security or comfortability being compromised.

“We provide a family-friendly, safe environment in the daytime for everybody,” he said. “Also, in the evening, it’s a place where adults can cut loose in a safe environment, get a little wild and know that they are around people who’ve got their back.”

Evelyn O’Brien, dressed as Wonder Woman, waits for the Dragon Con parade on Peachtree Center Avenue in Atlanta in 2017. (Kaitlyn Lewis/WABE)

Woods agreed with Carroll.

“There is nothing more important than the safety of our guests and our colleagues … it always has been and it always will be,” Woods said. “Dragon Con has been the vanguard of working with all the local authorities of making sure that everyone is able to have a fun event.”

Both partners agreed that a strong initiative since the beginning of Dragon Con has been inclusivity.

“It is absolutely vital also to make sure that this a place of not only physical safety but emotional safety,” said Carroll, who is disabled. “We want to make sure that we are representing 2022. We want to make it the place for every race, every religion … whatever you are, you will find a home here.”

A group of cosplayers pose together at Dragon Con 2018.

Community amongst Atlanta businesses and bureaus has also played a major role in allowing Dragon Con to return this year to full capacity.

“Our partnership with the Atlanta Convention and Center of Visitors Bureau has definitely contributed to both our acceptance by the city, by the community … all the restaurateurs,” Caroll said. “Dragon Con is an economic windfall for this city and a part of the cultural skyline.”

“The economic impact is in the hundreds and millions every year. Last year, even at half at what it usually was, it was still one of the biggest events of the year in the state,” said Woods. “People may not notice every year, but the people who survive on it do … they are grateful to have it back and to have Atlanta back.”

While Woods could not give specific numbers on the amount of revenue Dragon Con brings to the Hyatt, he can confirm that it is typically one of the hotel’s most financially lucrative annual events, with every ounce of staff labor and productivity going into ensuring a great event.

On top of the use of meeting spaces for panels and meet-and-greets, the Hyatt Regency will host the Masquerade, a highly anticipated annual contest that blends together costume and performance.

The Hyatt will also partner with Dragon Con on several food and beverage endeavors, including the creation of a specialty burger, The Dragon Con Spider Burger, that will be sold exclusively at the Hyatt’s restaurant, as well as “Voodoos Buckets,” a signature cocktail that has typically sold out early in the weekend in past years.

Proceeds for the specialty burger will go to Open Hand Atlanta, Dragon Con 2022’s official nonprofit partner.

“We got comic books in one building, this incredible flea market going on in our vending hall … the fact that we have our own film festival, we have our own art show with juried prices is kind of amazing to me that we’re able to put it all together in one place,” he said. “The advantage of having the five hotels is that it gives us so much room to space things out.”

With practically each space being filled with sci-fi legends like “Star Trek” veteran William Shatner, to cast members from Atlanta filmed series such as “Stargirl” and “Doom Patrol,” every inch of the convention spaces, both indoors and outdoors, is sure to be a bustling hub of activity on a level that has not been seen in Atlanta in years.

While it is too early to fully know what the success of this year’s Con holds, Carroll and many other dedicated fans have already made up their minds to be in attendance for the next one regardless.

“The folks that attend these events really are a family, and they’re really great people,” Woods said.

“This is Atlanta’s biggest family, and each year we grow and grow,” said Carroll. “My first Dragon Con day working the help desk, someone called me just to see how I was doing. I said ‘I’ve found my home.’”