Easily the biggest anime convention in North America is Anime Expo of Los Angeles, at approximately 100,000 guests. It is a convention that many aspire to attend for snob appeal; to attain a badge that says you have reached the holy grail of anime conventions, one that is unfeasible to attend each year for many of the locals due to its appalling price tag and chaotic nature. I had never even bothered trying to attend Anime Expo. Crowded, expensive, a logistical nightmare, and extraordinarily difficult to coordinate with others, just imagining how something 3-4 times the size of Anime Central or Anime Weekend Atlanta would even function in a similar-sized convention center wracks my mind. And that’s before the $300-$500 one has to spend on plane tickets and the $90 registration fee. The con looks even less appealing now after having attended AKON in Dallas-Fort Worth, the oldest continually running anime convention in the United States. Now the second-largest anime convention in North America, AKON has had steady growth the last couple of years, and for 2017, has a new venue at the Fort Worth Convention Center and a lot to live up to, as my attendance was contingent on forgoing Anime Central. I have attended 7 other anime conventions in the United States, and I mean it when I say, “Forget Anime Expo: this is the standard against which all other anime conventions should be judged against.”
First of all, I will admit I made a slight mistake attending AKON. Unlike most anime conventions, it is a true 4-day convention, with many individuals having gotten to the venue by early Thursday. And why not, as badge pickup begins not on Thursday, but 6:00 PM on Wednesday evening. The dealers room opens not on Friday morning, but 2:30 PM on Thursday afternoon. And I learned all of this after having booked my plane tickets and deciding that Thursday was to be a day to either do sightseeing or relax, catch up on miscellaneous matters, and have dinner with friends, with no con work whatsoever. Oops. Top tip: if at all possible, get there Wednesday night or Thursday morning, pick up badge, stay at a cheap offsite hotel for Wednesday night only, and be ready to start the con on Thursday.
But what about the convention itself? Well, from the voices of the attendees, the new venue was a significant improvement over the old one, which was held at a hotel where attendees were packed in like sardines and overflow hotels were on the other side of an expressway. Thankfully, the surrounding hotels were close to the Fort Worth Convention Center so one does not have to travel great distances between buildings and there was no massive swarm to try and reserve a room, nor a policy that said deposits are required or rates were nonrefundable. Costs were in line with Anime Central, and the Sheraton I stayed at, while a bit old and grungy with insufficient parking, was just a 10-minute walk away from the Fort Worth Convention Center and had multiple panel programming rooms. Gaming is held at the nearby Omni hotel, and is the hotel most sought after by convention attendees due to its close proximity to the convention center, which houses registration, some panel programming, the dealers room, and artists alley. Photoshoots were held in the surrounding Fort Worth Water Gardens, a large, open area naturally separated into smaller segments, complete with water elements and had scenery allowing for some beautiful shots. The smaller areas allowed approximately 16 different photoshoots to be run at any point in time, and while AKON lags behind Anime Central in that there is little promotion of the photoshoots by the convention itself, at least attendees are oftentimes more than willing to pick up the slack. Having all photoshoot locations outdoors manages to keep the convention center from being overcrowded, but should it rain, all hopes are dashed. One final thing to note about the outdoor photoshoots is that this is a June convention in Fort Worth, Texas, so bring extra clothes to change out of, as temperatures this year were in the low 90s with dewpoints in the mid 60s. It was never unbearably hot and humid at any one point during the convention, but more of a constant slight discomfort, with some rain early on Friday morning.
AKON does not mail badges to attendees, but the longer hours for registration are quite welcome, and on Thursday afternoon, it took just under 30 minutes to get my badge. There were also panels taking place on Thursday evening, an excellent way to ease into the convention mindset. Though the paper schedule was unfriendly to use as it was made of cheap newspaper, required lots of flipping between pages and had tiny, almost illegible font, AKON has by far the best online schedule system, as the interactive schedule does not require a separate app to use. Just load the page from AKON’s website on your phone’s internet browser and you’re done. One thing to note, however, is that there are frequent schedule changes, but these changes are communicated to attendees through the online schedule rather than verbally, so should your panel be rescheduled, keep a close eye on the schedule for updates. Panels themselves are hit-or-miss, as informational panels were very high quality, but some fan-run “fun” panels struggled. (The Yuri on Ice meetup, for instance, was a cross between an AA meeting and recess at an elementary school playground) AKON does offer registration discounts to panelists, though the misuse of this perk is not nearly as prevalent as in Anime Central.
Several other things I noticed at AKON and not at other conventions include the heavy use of tape on the floor of the Sheraton to mark where attendees are supposed to line up for events, maps put up all throughout the convention center to help attendees orient themselves and find their way around, and proactive staff who would count out the number of people in line before a panel began to make sure the room itself was not overloaded and to inform attendees that a panel is full before it even begins. It is this commitment to keeping things under control and running smoothly that separate this con from the rest. Staff members were able to balance enforcing the rules and wanting to be helpful, and not once did I feel they were abusing their authority and it was seldom that I saw them having to clamp down on unruly attendees. Despite the presence of Fort Worth police officers and convention center security throughout AKON, there was a sense that they were there for safety and to make sure things didn’t go awry rather than to suppress and intimidate attendees. The attendees themselves were level-headed, very welcoming to out-of-towners, and just seemed to want get together and have a good time, being quiet during panels and displaying none of the rambunctious and unruly behavior to say that they went to a convention just to cause a ruckus or get drunk. I’m looking directly at you, Anime Central, with your flashing lights and blaring sirens from the multitude of emergency vehicles outside the Hyatt Regency all weekend. But on the other hand, when it comes to loosening up and having fun, there was passion, laughter, and creativity, as seen in the high quality of cosplays and during photoshoots. I’m looking at you, Anime Weekend Atlanta. Perhaps the most welcome aspect regarding cosplays is that attendees are focusing on both the latest anime, movies, and video games out there along with the older shows as well. There was also no sense of cliqueyness, and while there was some group cosplay, attendees were willing to branch out from groups to be themselves and cosplay something other than the mainstream shows. Again, I’m looking at you, Anime Weekend Atlanta. One final thing to note is the large number of individuals who engage with younger family members in the anime community itself, or get said family members into cosplay. This was perhaps the most surprising and welcome, as in the Midwest, parents are seen as out-of-touch with attendees, a nuisance whose only jobs are to ferry children around, provide them with funds or be unwillingly dragged around by them so as not to run afoul of local laws regarding minors.
But that’s not the only aspects of AKON that are worth mentioning. Those who love art will find the artists alley amongst the best of any anime convention, as not only is it large in size, but the artists who come are amongst the best, so it is not big for bigness sake. It is located in the convention center along with the dealers room, autograph booth, and a large cafeteria-style open area with several food vendors. The dealers room is also well-sized, and there were fewer booths which sold DVDs and manga, with more selling things such as knick-knacks, Japanese snacks, and cosplay props representing a wide variety of shows. Repeat merchandise is a much less prevalent issue here versus Anime Central. But what really separates AKON’s dealers room from other large anime conventions is in crowd management. The room is enormous and instead of packing in as many vendors as possible, AKON has instead made sure the pathways are wide and accommodating, so attendees are not crashing into each other or stuck behind a large crowd trying to walk down a hallway, and getting pictures is not an exercise in futility. Autograph sessions are staggered throughout the day and are held at the back of this room in orderly lines. In regards to food, AKON also fares well in the sense that no matter where you are, there is a food vendor nearby. Now, qualitywise for food, AKON loses out to Anime Weekend Atlanta, but there are food vendors in the same room as the dealers room/artists alley, outside the convention center by the Water Gardens, fancy restaurants peppered all around the convention center, hotel restaurants, and food trucks behind the Sheraton hotel. As a result, lines are relatively short due to the multitude of choices, pricing is appropriate, and one doesn’t ever have to walk too far to satisfy their appetite.
So where does this leave AKON? Well, there are some areas where it is the best, like the artists alley, dealers room, attendees, and especially con operations. Sure, Anime Boston and Anime Weekend Atlanta have better programming rosters. Anime Central has better photoshoots. Anime Expo and Otakon will get more glitz and glamour in regards to new releases, concerts, and guests. It’s not the cheapest convention to attend, there are no forums, and your mileage may vary depending on weather. But as a convention, AKON does not have any enormous, glaring deficiencies, and instead ranks midpack or upper tier when it comes to areas in which it is not the absolute best. It is approachable for beginning congoers but also provides enough entertainment for veteran congoers. Despite being the second-largest anime convention in North America, it hides its size well, doesn’t overwhelm, isn’t too big for its venue (as of now at least) nor throw its weight around. It is this lack of deficiencies and minus points, plus the multitude of plus points and areas in which they are leaders that make AKON the best anime convention out there. In fact, in regards to costs, take into account that one is registering for a 4-day convention instead of a 3-day convention and AKON ranks much more favorably against other conventions. Now, compare that to Anime Expo, where one needs to be bussed between hotels and the convention center and factor in long travel times in between everything. Where the act of not mailing out badges to attendees results in hours-long or even days-long wait times in the hot Southern California sun in July. And for those who want sponsor badges for Anime Expo, that will be the cost of a plane ticket back home. While I am not familiar with how chaotic Anime Expo gets, just listing off the statistics and wondering how things will even work with up to 4 times the crowd size of other large conventions just makes me wonder how much better the con has to be versus other conventions in order for me to say it is worth it. If you’d like to attend the biggest convention of them all, by all means have a good time at Anime Expo. But “It’s the biggest” is an insufficient reason for me to go spend several hundred dollars on a plane ticket and another several hundred on registration and hotel rooms and should not be the driving factor to attend a convention. Bigger is not always better, and instead if you want a more fulfilling con experience and a guaranteed good time, look no further than AKON.
My photos from AKON are up on my Flickr here, and the final batches will be uploaded soon.