Hello, internet. It is I, Sabine. If you're anything like me, you have just enough money and time in your budget for one big con every year. If you're also like me, you're a generalist, looking to go to a con where there's a mix of sci-fi, comics, movies, and TV. Let's take a look at two of the most popular cons that fit this particular bill: Dragon*Con and Comic-Con.
Bottom Up vs. Top Down
Like many cons, the content at Dragon*Con is organized into tracks. These tracks are organized around a theme, whether that be Stargate, dark fantasy, or skepticism. What makes it different than other large cons and similar to smaller cons is that these tracks are primarily fan-run. When you go to most panels at Dragon*Con, the panelists you're going to see will be other fans. This is not always the case; the thing to remember is that some of these tracks are able to organize really freaking huge (or not so huge- Adam Savage and Doc Hammer both sat on small panels last year, in addition to huge ones) panels featuring the people you paid your seventy bucks to see.
While Comic-Con is also run by fans, it's got a whole different sensibility. Don't get me wrong, you're going to go to small panels and see lots of nerds talk, but those nerds won't just be people off the street who happen to like Star Wars and volunteered. You're going to see writers, artists, actors, costumers, you name it. You're also going to see bigger panels than those offered at Dragon*Con, with bigger stars, many of whom are not nerds. The trade off here is like most of those between Dragon*Con and Comic-Con: do you want to hang out with nerds, or do you want to see celebrities? Do you want to gossip about the new season, or do you want to see first-run trailers?
This top down/bottom up phenomenon also impacts the merch available. If you're really super into action figures and collectibles of that type, Comic-Con is the place for you, with its large exhibitors and con exclusives. Comic-Con is also the place for, you guessed it, comics. While Dragon*Con also hosts many comic book artists, both new and established, there are just way, way more at Comic*Con. Also, if you're looking to make your break into comics, there are more industry types who are more accessible at Comic-Con.
As a general rule, Dragon*Con just has less stuff to buy in general. The dealer rooms are smaller and spaces available for much cheaper, so the stuff you can buy is more eclectic, but there's just less of it. This is a double edged sword- you won't spend as much money there, but that one thing you really want may not be available for you.
Food and Drink
If you go to Comic-Con and don't plan wisely, food will end up being one of your biggest expenses. It is seriously hard to get yourself fed without spending a lot of money if you don't bring your own food. The food sold at the convention center is very expensive for what it is (think baseball stadium food), and the cheaper restaurants near the convention center are constantly slammed during the con. Luckily, I've never experienced a problem bringing in outside food to the convention center; I'm not sure it's a real rule, but nobody seems to care about bringing in food or beverages.
At Dragon*Con, however, it is much, much easier to eat on the cheap. In the complex that encases the Marriott, Hyatt, and Hilton, there is a small mall with a food court; this means cheap food without ever leaving the building. Seating has always been a problem there, but they seem pretty chill about people sitting on the floor. It's also a great place to people/costume-watch. Also, if you managed to get a room in a con hotel, you can easily bring your own food and eat in the room without having to carry your food around with you.
Drinking, of the alcoholic variety, is another huge concern (for me, at least). In my experience, nobody drinks at Comic-Con. It's just not part of the culture. The convention center doesn't sell booze. The panels end (relatively) early at night and start early in the morning. It's just a more sober con.
Dragon*Con, on the other hand, is where the booze flows freely. All the hotels serve alcohol pretty much all the time, and there seems too be a very high tolerance for tipsy behavior. The hotels also clearly don't care about outside alcohol (or else that bellhop wouldn't have carted that case of Bud to the room for me). The panels start late and end very late, so there's plenty of time to drink yourself stupid and still feel refreshed in the morning. I've never encountered a problem with drunk people doing stupid things there, possibly because I often have been one, but you'll want to keep this in mind, especially if you have small children and intend to bring them. And, hey, if you don't drink and find yourself tempted, there are meetings for friends of Bill W at Dragon*Con too.
Both Comic-Con and Dragon*Con do their best to keep their guests comfortable and to accommodate guests with disabilities. However, because of the locations these cons are held in, there are different health and safety concerns.
At both of these cons, expect to have to wait outside for registration and larger panels; this is a little nicer at Comic-Con, because it's not held in Atlanta in the summer. Both cons allow guests with disabilities to skip lines and wait indoors or in shaded areas; from what I've seen, Dragon*Con seems to be a little better about providing these waiting areas with chairs. Both the convention center and the hotels in Atlanta feature a lot of escalators, but the elevators are way more accessible at Dragon*Con; last year, some hotels actually blocked off elevators specifically for the use of disabled guests.
It's going to be harder to walk on a cane or push a wheelchair around at Comic-Con (ask Shadowen, she's done it) simply because there are more people there. However, the dealer rooms at Dragon*Con are much smaller and much more tightly packed than the floor at Comic-Con, which is its own problem. This is also important to remember if you're prone to panic attacks. If you do have problems with large crowds, also remember that it is easier to get outside at Dragon*Con and reenter the building without having to check out and in. In the end, though, you're going to be dealing with huge groups of people either way. Both cons will offer you solutions, but that only goes so far.
Comic-Con, whether you love or hate it, is starting to feel more like a trade show than ever. Tickets are getting harder to get, more programming is becoming more and more mainstream, and the atmosphere has an overall tension that wasn't there several years ago. For a fan of Dragon*Con, Comic-Con can feel uptight. Despite all this, it remains a really awesome experience.
The primary objective of Dragon*Con is to let your freak flag fly. Overall, it's a funkier con with funkier people. Expect to get gawked at by locals, and resolve yourself to not care (because, really, you're having so much more fun). Like Comic-Con, it's experiencing growing pains, but in my experience, it's not handling them as well, which can lead fans of Comic-Con to think it feels sloppy.
In the end, it's up to you which con sounds better. I won't tell you my favorite, if it's not already clear; only you can decide what kind of experience you want to have.