The 2012 Dragon*Con parade

Atlanta (CNN) - Angie Dowling attended her first Dragon*Con with her father when she was 5 years old. Now, more than 20 years later, she’s the parent squeezing her children through the crowds to secure a prime viewing spot for the parade of science-fiction and fantasy characters.

“Getting to experience the parade with them is even more incredible because they’re looking at it through fresh eyes with that youthful excitement,” said the 29-year-old English teacher from Marietta, Georgia. “They absolutely love it. They give themselves over completely to the experience.”

From Chewbacca and the Hunger Games to quarians and steampunk dogs, there was something for nearly every fandom on Saturday at Atlanta’s annual Dragon*Con parade, one of the most kid-friendly events of the year’s biggest fan convention in the southeastern United States. About 14,000 spectators attended last year’s parade, and organizers expect that number to grow this year.

Regarded among many as a more fan-oriented alternative to San Diego Comic-Con, Dragon*Con has grown since its inception in 1987, taking over more of downtown Atlanta each year as organizers add panels to accommodate growing interest in all things fan-related. While Dragon*Con’s panels and parties attract fans of television, film, video game and comic-inspired subcultures from all over the country, the parade is open to the public free of charge, drawing families from all around metro Atlanta who wouldn’t necessarily identify as nerds or pony up for weekend passes that run as high as $140.

Dave and Kristen Lee arrived around 9 a.m., one hour before the parade’s start, to set up blankets and folding chairs on Peachtree Street with their sons and other families from Decatur, Georgia.

“This isn’t really my thing,” said Lee, whose two sons were dressed up as Jedi knights in brown shirts with cords tied around their waists. “But the kids love watching all the superheroes and Star Wars figures.”

For others, however, Dragon*Con is their “nerdy gras,” something they look forward to all year, for which they spend days, if not weeks or months planning costumes and itineraries. Having learned from five years' experience, Jason McMinn claimed his spot on the parade route at 7:15 a.m.

McMinn lives just 20 miles outside of Atlanta, but he and his wife are staying at a hotel near the convention for the weekend. “It’s more convenient to stay in town, especially for getting to the parade,” he said.

His friend, Barbara Martin, also had a few pro tips for viewing the parade: Bring a chair to sit on, water for staying hydrated and tennis shoes for comfort.

Costumes are the main obsession for most attendees of the convention and the parade, even if they’re not marching in it. Five years ago it was the costume that drew Dowling to her future husband at Dragon*Con in a common convention hook-up scenario. On Friday night, they revisited the karaoke bar in the Hilton Hotel where they met.

“He was dressed as Yuri from 'Shadow Hearts,'” she said. “He was really cute.”

This year, Dowling was more focused on participating in panels. She sought the aid of her mother, Pattie, in creating costumes for her children, who went to the parade dressed as characters from “The Avengers.” Mark, 8, was especially proud of the studded wrist guards for his Hawkeye costume while it took Patricia, 6, two washes to get her hair the right shade of red for her Black Widow costume.

Dowling has seen the parade swell over the years as sci-fi and fantasy have evolved from geeky obsessions into fixtures of mainstream pop culture. When Dowling first attended with her father, Marvel artist Mark Bagley, the convention was a much smaller affair, she said. Over the years she has seen attendance swell as participants expand to new themes such as steampunk, Doctor Who and all things Joss Whedon.

“All these new branches have sprouted and they bring in new groups of cosplayers [costume players], so now it’s this amazing conveyor-belt sampler platter of all thing geeky and good,” she said. “If you want to know what Dragon*Con is about, watch the parade and you will see all those elements represented.”

Characters represented in the parade also tend to reflect pop culture trends, said parade spectator Karl Justice of Johnson City, Tennessee. This year marked his eighth season attending Dragon*Con.

“Slytherin is dominating. It used to be Gryffindor,” he said of costumes inspired by the Harry Potter series in a tone equal parts sportscaster and cultural critic.

Other shifts included a resurgence of interest in “Ghostbusters” (possibly due to recent news that a new film version will go ahead without Bill Murray, he said), and the decline of “Battlestar Galactica” and “GI Joe.” “Game of Thrones” is getting bigger, he also noted as a contingent of battle-weary soldiers of Westeros made its way through the street.

“Where else can you find something like this?” he said. “It’s a unique vacation.”