If you walk along Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta over Labor Day weekend, you’re likely to encounter storm troopers, zombies and elves. The weekend brings superheroes and superfans to take part in Dragon Con.

The convention has drawn science fiction and gaming fans since its start in 1987, when it lured just 1,200 attendees to meet guests like Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons. By 2000, the event filled two hotels — the Hyatt Regency and Atlanta Marriott Marquis —and in 2014, expanded to five host hotels. In 2019, the number of Dragon Con visitors broke records when it reached 85,000.

Costumes at Dragon Con

Since its beginning, Dragon Con has welcomed fans costumed as their favorite film, video game or literary characters, a practice often called “cosplay” for “costumed play.” Today, Dragon Con is a must-see event for cosplayers and the people who enjoy watching them, with special events such as the Masquerade Costume Contest and the convention’s annual parade. 

Dan Carroll

“Dragon Con is a place where anyone can come and celebrate the things they enjoy, and each year we have plenty of programming guests from current and recent TV shows, but we also celebrate the classic TV shows, movies of the 1960s and 1970s, through programming and guests,” said Dan Carroll, a 58-year-old IT Project Manager from Woodstock, Ga. He also serves as Dragon Con’s Director of Media Engagement.

“From children in costumes from a party store, to homemade costumes, to costumes that could be screen ready for a movie production…Dragon Con welcomes it all.”

Carroll made sure to mention the Star Wars-themed group known as the 501st, who costume as stormtroopers serving the Empire, and their partner team The Rebel Alliance. “They are both a dedicated costuming group and a fantastic charity year-round,” he said. “They visit sick children and share a little bit of joy.”

Some of his personal favorite cosplay highlights tend to be comic book characters, such as Doctor Strange, Iron Man and X-Men, “…mostly those costumes that take me back to my youth in the 1970s, going to the local 5 & 10 cent store to get comics spending hours reading them,” Carroll said.

As far as his own cosplay, “I have done one subtle cosplay for 12 years as Obadiah Stane, the villain in Iron Man, which is really me just putting on a suit,” Carroll said. “A few years back, I borrowed a costume for Star Wars character Rex, and this year I hope to reveal my own Rex costume.”

A lot to choose from

David McAlister, 68, a lawyer who lives in Decatur, has been attending Dragon Con since 1989. “I enjoyed taking my young children for short visits to see a little bit of the convention and the costumes,” he said. “They got hooked, and they try to come back to Atlanta every Labor Day weekend so that they can go to the con.”

David McAlister dressed as Captain Morgan

He said that what he likes best about Dragon Con is that there are so many different activities going on, but one thing that everyone appreciates is the costumes. “Probably only 25% to 30% of people wear costumes, but they certainly dominate the view wherever you go,” McAlister said.

For many years, he went to the convention in street clothes, though he admired what others were doing. “Then my daughter started making and wearing costumes, mostly based on characters from [BBC fantasy series] Doctor Who. About 10 years ago, my wife suggested that a costume she had made for a church youth play could be used as a wizard costume. I wore it one afternoon to the con and enjoyed being part of the cosplay experience, so I decided I should try it again,” he said.

A few years later, “I dressed as Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, from the not-particularly-good movie of that name. Since then, I’ve tried a couple of other costumes. My most successful one is a pirate captain costume based on the look of Captain Morgan from the rum bottle and commercials that ran a few years ago,” McAlister said.

O Captain, my captain

McAlister reported that he’s had fun with the Captain Morgan costume. “Wearing the Captain Morgan costume is an excellent excuse to stand the crowded Marriott hotel lobby with a drink in hand, raising a toast to people wearing the most interesting costumes that pass by,” he said. “In the Captain Morgan TV commercials, he is always surrounded by other captains so that he can address everyone as “Captain.”

At Dragon Con, McAlister said he tries to call out “Captain” to anyone he sees dressed as a captain of some kind – Captain Kirk, Picard or Janeway from Star Trek, Captain America, Captain Marvel, and other pirates. “They almost always call ‘Captain’ back at me. One year, I spotted someone in costume as Captain Kangaroo, the children’s TV show host from many years ago. Of course, I called out ‘Captain’ to him. He was startled, but he smiled when he recognized the reference and called ‘Captain’ back.”

One less pleasant aspect of cosplay can be the Atlanta heat. “Walking outside in a heavy pirate captain costume or wizard costume is quite difficult when the temperature hovers around 90 degrees,” McAlister admitted.

In spite of that, he’ll continue his cosplay at Dragon Con. “Without a costume, you are just attending the con. Wearing a costume, you are part of the con. You become part of what people came to see, and that makes the whole experience better.”

The family that cosplays together

Lee and John Dodds, 63 and 66 respectively, are retired and reside in Peachtree City. They’ve been going to Dragon Con for 10 years in person, and “one year virtually [2020] due to COVID. We’ve been cosplaying that long too,” Lee said.

Lee and John Dodds

Their daughter learned about Dragon Con through the internet and got the family into cosplay. “John was a theater major in college, so costuming and acting were a natural fit for him,” Lee said. “We’ve also always enjoyed Halloween. Costuming and taking on the personality or characteristics of someone else for an evening has always been fun for us.”

The Dodds said they’re primarily drawn to general pop culture and sci-fi at Dragon Con. The three of them have dressed as characters from the Top Gear and Dr. Who television shows on BBC, the Gravity Falls animated TV series and the Mystery Science Theater 3000 TV series.

“We loved all of them and loved doing that together as a family,” Lee said. “Although, with Dr. Who, John was the Doctor, our daughter was [the Doctor’s sidekick] Clara and I was [the time-and-space-traveling ship] the Tardis. It was fun to do, but I don’t think I’d do that one again. Then John and I were the Moonrise Kingdom main characters [from the 2012 movie], which was our favorite cosplay so far.”

Lee said that one of the best experiences was when they were dressed as the three main characters from the TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000, a name often shortened to MST3K.  “We went to an MST3K panel and Joel Hodgson (the show’s creator and star) saw us and asked to take a picture with us. That was pretty great.”

Stop and watch the zombies

The atmosphere at Dragon Con is what the Dodds like most. “It’s fun to see people who share your fandoms, the panels can be great fun, and the parade is a must-do every year,” Lee said.

 “It’s not unusual for someone dressed as a zombie, covered in fake blood, to stop and hold the door open for you or help you find the restroom.”

The Dodds said they find a comfortable place to sit and watch the show go by. They especially like watching groups of people cosplaying together, such as several people dressed as My Little Pony characters, or a father and son as Indiana Jones and his Dad.

“We also love costumes or groups of people who are representing a pun, or a joke. Like a ‘Deadpool’ dressed as ‘Po from Teletubbies,’ so he’s ‘DeadPo.’ Or a group of men dressed as sailors, but the costumes are like the characters from Sailor Moon.” 

“One of our favorites was someone who was [the arcade game] Zoltar from the movie Big. He had built the entire fortune-telling machine, settled in at the Marriott lobby and sat inside it.”

All are welcome

Dragon Con Disability Services supports attendees who have physical or other disabilities. Services include wheelchair accessible buses, sign language interpreters and special seating for people in wheelchairs and those with service dogs. For more info, go to the ‘Disability’ section of dragoncon.org.

Kathy Dean

Kathy Dean is a freelance writer and editor based in metro Atlanta.