Anime Festival Orlando (AFO) 2016

AFO was my second-ever Con. I first attended back in 2012 with a group of good friends, now a little more drawn apart by college, life, and careers. Looking over my shoulder at the past four years I’ve spent returning to AFO’s Wyndham Orlando Resort hub, little seems to have changed—and not just because of the familiar venue. The artist ally and vendor’s hall occupy the same areas. Veteran AFO guests, like Todd Haberkorn and Stephanie Sheh, return once more to greet new and long-time fans. The cosplay contest and gaming rooms are still in full-swing. Even the layout of the vendors appears frozen in time.

I might consider AFO stuck in its ways, but, instead, I’d argue there’s nostalgic value in its familiarity. The old adage says “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and while I’d argue that last year’s AFO had quite a few broken things in need of fixing, this year’s show put the “A” back in AFO.

The Scoop:

What – A multi-day celebration of all things related to Japanese animation and pop culture held at the Wyndham Orlando Resort.

When

Thursday, July 28: 8PM – 10PM
Friday, July 29: 10AM –1AM
Saturday, July 30: 10AM – 1AM
Sunday, July 31: 8AM – 5PM

Where – Wyndham Orlando Resort International Drive

Who – Greg Berger, Aaron Dismuke, Todd Haberkorn, Reuben Langdon, Vic Mignogna, Mark Musashi, Stephanie Sheh, Michael Sinterniklaas, and John Swasey

Price – $35-$45 (single-day), $60 (weekend)

Perks – Gameshow theater, meet-and-greet with anime guests, Happy Happy Cosplay Go Go Go Cosplay Contest, dance events, fan events & panels, and tabletop gaming

AFO shirt display

This year, AFO presented a much more competent and collected experience, even going so far as to take special safety measures following the tragedy in Orlando two months ago. Ticket lines were kept short, due in part to efficient service (even a hitch in getting my press pass didn’t deter the staff for more than 10 mins) and in part to thinner crowds. Friday saw a lower attendance rate, followed by a modestly-climbing spike on Saturday. Perhaps being sandwiched in-between Metrocon and DragonCon did a number on AFO’s usual… er… numbers. Cons are becoming more expensive by way of trade, after all, which has forced many regulars to literally count the cost on their wallets and choose their Cons wisely. But I digress.

Brief wait times and a lower attendance rate than AFO 2015 meant a much more comfortable experience for me, and, dare I say, the rest of the participants, too. Even narrow artist ally… er… alleys (I gotta stop while I’m ahead…) were pleasantly spacious up until mid-afternoon, when crowds flooded the halls. Despite consistent two-way traffic, I met with little on-coming obstruction, even with the summer heat forcing many cosplayers in-doors for photoshoots.

gundam unitSeeing as AFO is Orlando’s staple anime Con, I was curious to see whether the attendance this year truly reflected the theme. I chose to cosplay Black Jack—one of Tezuka’s popular characters from the 1970’s—on Saturday, just to see how many anime fans would recognize me. I banked on the older generation being the only ones to pick me out of the crowd with ease, but I was rewarded to see younger fans calling my character’s name (occasionally even his birth name “Hazama”) in order to snap a picture or fan-out over the sheer obscurity.

If attendees make the Con, then AFO had the genuine article this year. Even while stranded in autograph lines, I found myself occupied with intelligent conversation on all manner of otaku topics. Impressively, the vendors went beyond basic sales-pitch dialogues to form connections with window-shoppers and customers alike, discussing favorite series, sharing trivia, and expressing equal interest in the sub-culture. And, of course, special guests made many a fan’s day, going to great lengths to ensure each interaction was a personal and memorable experience, whether in the autograph line or the panel room.

Without any boom boxes blaring in the halls, only the buzzing of chit-chat threatened to mask open-door panels and their hosts’ voices. With most attendees reclined in the dining area or outdoors in the shade, however, noise simmered at a comfortable level. Tabletop and gaming rooms kept participants from loitering unnecessarily in the halls while playing on handhelds or phones. Of course, Pokémon Go was the topic of day, with the Wyndham sporting at least three hotspots, and vendors encouraging the team spirit with fanart, t-shirts, buttons, and other memorabilia bearing Pokémon Go’s team insignias. Some cosplayers flaunted their team pride with Valor, Mystic, or Instinct uniforms.

To pick two things that especially impressed me this year, I have to make mention of the wider guest lineup and the variety of vendor merchandise available. AFO carefully selected premium anime stars, paying special attention to those with roles in recent anime blockbusters, such as John Swasey (The Boy and the Beast). Unsurprisingly, Vic Mignogna drew a meet-and-greet crowd large enough to warrant his own autographing time and space. I felt as blessed to watch other fans meet him (squee-ing there and back again) as I did to meet him for the second time.

attack on titan cosplay groupAs for the vendor’s hall—it’s difficult to fully put my finger on why it was such a treat this year. When not standing in autograph lines, I spent a majority of my time exploring the wares for sale. Perhaps it’s because each vendor presented a lineup of unique products, with very little cross-over in-between. As a long-time figurine collector, I was pleasantly surprised to see authentic products displayed for sale—and at very fair pricing, too. Fandom-y t-shirts, bearing references delightfully obscure enough to warrant an “inside-joke” response, gave off a vibe of originality. I found myself passing plenty of merchandise I would have been proud to own (and sport in public), if only I had the money.

I still think that AFO is doing itself a disservice by not expanding its venue, simply because, with its drawing power and programming, it could sustain a much larger event. That said, I was relieved and pleased with my experiences this year, especially after the disorganization and over-crowdedness of last year’s event had me regretfully wondering if I’d ever come back again. AFO 2016 made me re-fall in love. It brought back that pocky-scented whiff of nostalgia that comes with a good experience, sprinkled with just the right amount of unexpected plot-twists along the way.

Consider me optimistically interested in what 2017 has to offer, and sold solid if AFO rents an even larger Con venue worthy of its fun-filled weekend.

AFO is a multi-day celebration of all things related to Japanese animation and pop culture held at the Wyndham Orlando Resort.

Visit the AFO Official Website

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Photography by Amy Covel

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Author: Casey Covel View all posts by

Casey Lynn Covel (known online as “Cutsceneaddict”) is an award-winning, published writer, avid reader, and aspiring author. She runs a nerdy writing blog called Meek-Geek and founded PROJECT: Magic Kingdom Hearts in 2012. When she’s not writing for Geeks Under Grace, Florida Geek Scene, Beneath the Tangles, or FROM JAPAN, she enjoys cosplaying, and has won several awards for her work. Follow her on Instagram for her latest cosplay endeavors. #meekischic

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