Last weekend my wife and I boarded the Totoro Cat Bus and attended Anime Central (ACEN) in Rosemont, Illinois. Overall it was an enjoyable convention, but in many ways I feel like it has lost its charm. Here’s my nearly comprehensive review of ACEN 2012.
Anime and Manga
As the name “Anime Central” implies, this convention celebrates all things Anime, although there are other minor elements, including tabletop gaming, steampunk, sci-fi, video gaming, and even furrydom.
The event is chock full of Anime panels, cosplay photo meetups, and vendors selling all kinds of Anime apparel, accessories, manga, DVDs/Blu-ray, and other items.
Convention Rating for Anime and Manga: 4 out of 5
Anime Central has a lot of spirit, but it has grown too big. They don’t have enough staff to run a wide enough variety of simultaneous events to accommodate 20,000+ people, so the most popular panels cannot be attended back to back. For some events, you have to wait HOURS ahead of time to be guaranteed a seat.
I talked to a staffer about this, and his answer is simple– there just aren’t enough convention volunteers to support the kind of growth that the attendance levels demand. And since they claim to be a non-profit that has no paid volunteer positions, I doubt many people are willing to bust their butt for a free convention badge.
Fortunately, the strong prevalence of cosplayers continues to make the event a cool hangout/meetup venue, despite the dreadful lines.
I would encourage anyone attending ACEN to dress up. Trust me, it won’t be weird, and you’ll fit in just fine. In fact, you will fit in BETTER if you are cosplaying. The density of cosplayers is so great that you will actually seem a little out of place if you are dressed normally. So at the very least, wear a nerdy T-shirt or something.
I’ve personally known several cosplayers who bring different outfits to wear for each day of the convention! Expect to see the full spectrum of costume quality, but it is rare for someone to get harassed that their costume sucks. Cosplay is kind of addicting, and people get better at it over time, so most cosplayers are generally happy to see people at least making an effort. Unless you dressed up like a Narutard…
Convention Rating for Cosplay: 5 out of 5
Ahh, I kid the Naruto fans… but seriously, this is a great convention for photo opportunities. And there are meetups for you to get pictures of all your favorite characters together in one shot!
Oh, and I almost forgot to mention– LOTS OF HOT HOT HOT COSPLAYERS! As a male, I’m mostly referring to the lovely cosplay ladies, but my wife also pointed out a few beeftastic studmuffins in attendance as well. Stereotypes be damned, there are a LOT of very sexy geeks/nerds out there. At least we hope that they’re not just pretending to be geeky…
Be warned though– things are not always what they seem. The 2012 event had a lot more cross dressers and/or cross players than I can remember from previous years.
Main attractions often involve music, dance, and anime, or some combination thereof. There are generally two big raves (one Friday and Saturday) and one formal ball. While these events are pretty awesome, they are always very, very crowded.
One of the great advantages of the formal ball it that it is a ticketed event with a limited number of attendees. If you have a ticket, you are guaranteed a spot. It is the only event at ACEN that requires tickets, and tickets go fast. This also happens to be the dance where my wife and I met in 2009, so it is small enough, and the volume is low enough, that you can actually meet people and talk. And since it is on Friday, if you meet someone you like, you can hang out at other events on Saturday and Sunday.
As for the raves, like the nightclub scene in a bad teen movie, there are people who wait for hours and hours just to get in to dance. In a word, this sucks. Either you waste hours of your life waiting in line before the event starts, or you waste hours of your life waiting in line after the events starts. In both cases, there are no guarantees that you will actually get to enjoy whatever it is you were waiting for. Once again, convention attendance has grown faster than the volunteer infrastructure can support, and this problem seems to get a little worse every year.
And this is why my friends and I have long established the first rule of ACEN: Do not wait in lines, ever. Plan your agenda to go from event to event to minimize waiting. If there is a line, walk in like you own the place. In many instances, in fact, the line you see is for something else. And if it is? Better to ask for forgiveness and apologize than waste your time rotting in a line. Life is short.
Vendor Room & Artists Alley
The main hall of the Rosemont convention center is huge, and I swear, each new year of ACEN packs in more stuff. The vendor area was filled with the usual items– manga books, anime DVDs and blu-ray, posters, figurines, T-shirts, various costume accessories, miscellaneous Asian products, and of course, several booths selling pointy and sharp pieces of poor-quality metal. This is pretty standard for Anime Central.
What I have been most impressed with over the last few years, is the continual expansion and quality improvements in the Artists alley. The convention hall is always split into two distinct areas, the dealer/vendor area and the artist’s alley. 2012 was the first year I can remember that the artist’s alley actually had as much stuff to see as the vendor area. And the improvements have not just been in quantity, the quality has clearly gone up as well. I think this may also have been the first year that I actually spent more money in the artist’s alley than with the regular vendors.
The artist’s alley had a very wide variety of arts and crafts available, including original art and prints, jewelry, clothing, comic books, figurines, and… … … I really don’t think a simple list of items really does justice to the variety of products and art styles. The artist’s alley is an ACEN art gallery that needs to be experienced yourself.
Convention Rating Main Events: 5 out of 5
I may be a little biased, but wandering around vendor room and artist’s alley is one of the activities I look forward to at ACEN… perhaps because this is one of the few activities that does not require waiting in a crowded line.
This area of the convention is also probably the single best area for photo opportunities.
A few days prior to the convention, my wife and I looked through all the panels, and sketched out some aggressive panel schedules for ourselves. My wife went to a lot of great panels on comics, self publishing, and a couple voice acting panels. I attended a few of the same panels, but I was really excited about a variety of horror panels, and a couple story/character creation panels. Unfortunately, after we arrived at the event and picked up the final schedules (with errata), I found that the majority of panels I was planning to attend had been canceled. LAME!
Convention Panels Rating: 3 out of 5
Late cancellations, on top of the line/crowding issues at this convention make the panel seen pretty frustrating. It’s nearly impossible to go to back to back panels, not necessarily because of the travel time between rooms, but because you have to be waiting in line for a least a half an hour before a panel (or longer) to ensure that you will have a seat.
Now, aside from the frustration of cancellations, lines, and waiting, all of the panels we attended were pretty high quality. I usually go to at least one of Samurai Dan’s panels or shows, but as a martial artist, I’m always a little frustrated that Dan’s performances or talks are more “stand-up comedy” than they are “martial arts”. He and his family are funny, but it gets old after the first time. The voice acting and comic book panels we attended were all fantastic. If ACEN could do something to prevent so many late cancellations, and ensure that people who want to attend panels will be guaranteed a seat (perhaps through low cost ticketing), I think I could easily justify raising the score to a 4 of 5.
Video, Arcade, and Tabletop Gaming
Anime Central always sets up a space in the Hyatt basement as an old-school arcade. The selection of games is limited, but I had a lot of fun playing through the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game, and The Simpsons arcade game was busy all the time as well. Other members of our group spent a lot of time on the Para-Para machine, and I saw some incredibly fancy footwork on a few of the dance machines.
The video game area was in a large enough space this year, but the biggest complaint I heard was that it was in a different hotel than the Arcade. Some of the event activities, including video gaming, were held in the DoubleTree hotel about two blocks away from the main convention area. I don’t think most people wanted to walk that far away from the main convention activities, unless they were playing in one of the video game tournaments.
Tabletop gaming was also held in the DoubleTree a couple blocks away. I was excited about playing a Living Forgotten Realms event, or finally trying out Shadowrun (I’ve been meaning to for awhile now), but alas, there was no DnD or Shadowrun as the convention had advertised. There was Magic the Gathering, Go, Pathfinder, and some wargaming, but I didn’t walk all the way over to the DoubleTree to do any of those things.
Convention Gaming Rating: 3 out of 5
The arcade was OK, video gaming was out of place, and tabletop gaming was out of place and disappointing. I know ACEN has growth issues, and doesn’t know where to put certain activities, but I’m convinced there must be a better way.
And now for a few miscellaneous items, as I have some experience as an Event Planner (specializing in logistics). First the good.
The Anime Central crew put together a smart phone application known as “GuideBooks” that was actually REALLY AWESOME. It had the full convention schedule, maps of all the activities, lots of local resources (such as dining), and a personal itinerary manager. It was really neat that you could select the events you wanted to attend, and then the application continually reminded you of what you were going to next. Quite a bit more convenient that paging through a hard-copy of the event schedule every hour or two.
I’d also like to give ACEN credit for having a decent draft of the event schedule on their website weeks in advance. This is certainly an improvement over years where you had no idea what the schedule was like until you arrived the night before the convention. On the topic of website– it was OK, but not terribly useful. There is always a lot of information buried in the Forum pages that I never have motivation to dig for. I don’t know why it’s so hard to actually compile in a high-visibility location outside of the forums, but I digress.
I already mentioned a number of disappointing cancellations. I had really be looking forward to a series of horror panels for some insights on a novel I have roughly outlined. Aside from cancellations, there were also a number of last minute room changes, which always makes things confusing.
As usual, lines into events were not managed very well. For anyone with a high enough Charisma stat or Bluff check, I recommend you walk around like you own the place. You’ll find that you can waltz into a lot of events without having to wait in a line… especially if you have a plausible excuse/justification. I would caution, however, not to try anything too outrageous, as you could lose your convention badge or be banned from future events.
The “line managers”, or volunteer event police known as “IRT”, were a joke, as usual. Now, I know I shouldn’t criticize all the IRT volunteers because of the actions of a few douches, but it seems like our encounters at least one IRT douche a year. This year, our Yuna asked an IRT volunteer a question to try to get to the activity she wanted to go to, and the IRT member proceeded to harass her about the “weapon” on her costume. At the bottom of her summoner staff there was a 2.5 inch jewelry chain and small bell (about one centimeter diameter). They asked Yuna to remove the bell from the staff because they were concerned she was going to “hit people” with it. Yuna refused to damage the costume she had recently purchased from my wife over at www.purplekoidesigns.com and IRT eventually decided to let Yuna off with a “warning” and a silly marker on her staff. I don’t know what kind of training IRT volunteers receive, but the staff itself was a much greater weapon than a stupid little bell. Clearly these particular volunteers did not understand their own weapons policy, or have any kind of martial background to understand what kinds of things might actually be dangerous.
To add insult to injury, later that night we might a cosplayer with a REAL longbow and REAL arrows who took part in an ACEN costume contest and actually won a minor award… but his costume accessories were never questioned. *sigh*
Convention Logistics Rating: 3 out of 5
On Saturday evening, in the middle of the convention, THERE WAS A FIRE DRILL. The hour long panel I was looking forward to attending was ruined. The panelist, who was one of the guests of honor at ACEN, was pissed, especially when the panel reformed, and an IRT representative was trying to kick him out to begin setting up for karaoke (there was a big line forming for karaoke, of course).
Our group attended an event call “Anime Hell” for a little while. This event normally consists of anime re-dubbed for great lulz. Sitting in the very back of of an auditorium that could seat about a thousand people, the volume level was atrocious. Measuring the decibel rating in the back of the room with an iPhone app, the volume was consistently between 85 and 100 decibel, which is an unsafe level for anyone without earplugs. And if you think I’m just being a fuddy-duddy, you can enjoy your Tinnitus and hearing aides when you’re 45.
The volume level at this laid-back anime viewing event was simply negligent. Needless to say, we didn’t stay very long. We got tired of holding are arms up with our fingers in our ears.
I know I’m getting older, and the more professional experience I acquire in a variety of areas, the more I expect higher quality from the events I attend, and the more I place a premium value on how I spend my time. That said, I think I’ve grown out of most of Anime Central’s charms.
Overall Convention Rating: 3.7 out of 5
I know my wife and brother and law will probably still want to go next year, but I think they enjoy the event more out of nostalgia than anything else. Granted, it has nostalgia for me as well, since my wife and I met at ACEN 2009, but the magic seems worn, and the shine is rusting. If I only had enough funds to go to one convention next year, I think I’d rather try to go to Gen Con, or just about any other convention with a stronger gaming presence. I like Anime, but I need more variety.
If you are a big fan of Anime, you enjoy cosplaying with a group friends, and you don’t mind waiting in line for a few hours to get your rave on, then Anime Central is totally for you. And for full disclosure, it’s not possible to attend every part of Anime Central every year because the event is just too big! So I may have missed lots more Good/Bad/Ugly in this review.
In previous years, I had attended ACEN as a sort of college reunion event, but none of those same people were able to attend in 2012. Life changes, and everyone is getting older. I think the party days of ACEN are over.
What About Your Experiences?
Have you attended Anime Central in the past, or did you attend in 2012? Is there anything you would like to add to this review, or dispute? Post away!