When you've been at something for two decades and only keep getting bigger and better, you know you're doing something right. Otakon has come a long way from its humble beginnings in a Days Inn in Pennsylvania, exploding from a humble gathering of 300 or so to a horde of nearly 35,000 otaku taking over its current home in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. In fact, the convention has gotten so large that Otakorp has already announced a move to Washington, D.C.'s more spacious convention center for 2017's edition, despite some sentimental reluctance.
Otakon celebrated its 20th anniversary in style, for sure. They brought in a smorgasbord of huge guests like Cowboy Bebop director Shinichiro Watanabe, world famous composer Yoko Kanno, and various animators and directors from recent blockbuster hits like Sword Art Online and Oreimo. Along with these guests came announcements of new titles like Watanabe's Space Dandy, and the world premieres of Oreimo's final episodes of the 2nd season as well as the English dubbed version of critically acclaimed film, Wolf Children.
Having only been to one previous edition of Otakon the year before, I don't have a lot to compare to, but this year's absolutely topped the last both in numbers, events, and sheer enthusiasm. It felt like there was even more cosplay than ever, particularly from fans of shows like Attack on Titan, which allow you to participate in army uniform without necessarily representing a specific character. Despite the larger crowd, I did not feel any real degradation of foot traffic, especially once they organized the unfortunately narrow sky bridges into one way lanes. Speaking of which, organization is Otakon's strong suit. While there will always be some hiccups and confusion in herding so many cats, I was still impressed with how most lines were handled, both for registration and panels. My only annoyance was discovering the huge rush for 18+ bracelets for Frday night's more racier affairs. I feel like that could have been addressed at the same time as registration (where you have to present your ID anyway) to alleviate those lines, especially when that was only a prelude to waiting in yet another line to get into the event. Besides that though, everything started on time for the most part and all of the staff was very courteous and helpful, always willing to take questions and find the answer for you.
When you arrive at Otakon, I highly suggest you take a look at the schedule (and download Guidebook if you have a smartphone) and plan your attack. There's way more things to do than there is ever enough time to see (which is not a complaint, but a sign of a great convention!). At any moment there's at least 4 anime showing in video rooms and multiple panels, Q&A's, and workshops to boot. You also have to account for how popular an event is going to be and factor in getting early to secure your spot, so there's going to be a lot of concessions made. Personally I was happy catching some of the smaller fare and avoiding some of the world premieres with their 2 hour long waits. I started off my schedule on Friday with a viewing of Otaku No Video, a comedic anime from 1991 that inspired Otakon according to its members' lore. It wasn't hard to see the connection as it traces a similar meteoric rise for a small band of otaku who take the world by storm and eventually construct their equivalent of Disneyland. I also caught showings of stuff like Hunter X Hunter and New Hurricane Polymar. Panels wise I found a lot of variety as I attended ones about Lolita fashion, sports anime, and the real of a manga artist. My favorites though involved reminiscing about the early days of anime in America with I Love the 80s: Anime Edition hosted by Mike Toole and the Anime Industry Before Times panel hosted by special guests who were founding members of such greats as AnimEigo, Animerica, ADV, and more.
Needless to say, there's no excuse to be bored at Otakon! Even if none of the anime or panels happens to be your thing at a given time, just wandering the halls and seeing all the cosplay is entertaining enough. Of course there's also a huge gaming room open all day long with a wide selection of arcade and console machines and software both old and new. I checked out Hatsune Miku Project Diva F with a real arcade controller among other rare Japanese imports, and tons of other rhythm music games like DDR, Rock Band, and Dance Central. And then there's the shopping, with both Artist's Alley and Dealer's Hall jam packed of goodies. My only complaint about the latter is that many dealers seemed to be working from the exact same stock, so there weren't many rare finds to be had, but that could also have been the fact that I didn't get in the first day. The good side of that is it made it easy to comparison shop and find the best deal if you were willing to put in the leg work.
And for those moments where you absolutely have to step out of the convention and get a breath of fresh air, the Inner Harbor is there for you with entertainment options like the many display ships in port, from submarines to tallships like the U.S.S. Constellation. You can even take a water taxi and get out on the water. There's of course plenty of food options in the area that run the gamut of low cost chains and food trucks to fancier fare like the great Spanish tapas restaurant I ate at on my last day. Hotels are a bit tricky and can be expensive for the weekend but they are mostly clustered around the convention center for easy access to and from Otakon. If you're looking to save though it might be cheaper to stay near the airport and take the light rail in, but I'm not as familiar with the viability of that option. I was skeptical about Baltimore at first, but it's found a place in my heart after two years there. A fondness has grown between the convention and the city and you can see many of the locals actually enjoy having us around. It's a shame it will be moving on in a few years and I have no doubt it was a difficult decision for Otakorp.
Otakorp has also created a spinoff convention in Las Vegas that starts this January 2014, so if that's closer to you it may be worth a look as well. Just keep in mind it'll be going through some first con pains, but I have confidence in this crew considering how well they've done with their first baby. Anyway, I had an amazing time at my second Otakon and look forward to doing it all again next year. There's a reason why this con has been so successful and made to the 20 year mark, and I hope you will join us out there next time, because despite everything else I mentioned, it's the people and the friends you meet that really make it great!
- Published in Cat & Fox Blog