Otaku culture values a lot of things–community, open-mindedness, art, pocky… But two valuables I find especially prevalent among anime aficionados are “breadth” and “depth.”
Breadth is the desire to enjoy variety—that spice of life that broadens our appreciation for culture, genre, and style. Breadth, for example, is the ability to watch anime genres as opposite as Attack on Titan and Bunny Drop side-by-side and acknowledge (if not enjoy) both of them.
If breadth is valued by otaku culture for its ability to expand horizons, however, depth is what internalizes those experiences and makes them meaningful. A desire for depth is a craving to dive as far into one particular series, genre, or author as possible and churn the soil for its richness. The deeper I plunge into a series, the more mastery I wield over it and the more of it I am able to apply it myself and the world around me. It’s when I internalize the anime I’ve watched that it’s able to shape my perspective, my beliefs, and even my comprehension of focus subjects like the Meiji Era (Rurouni Kenshin), volleyball (Haikyuu!!), and mythology (Fate/Zero).
Florida Anime Experience not only grasps the importance of depth, but also acts on it. Since its creation in 2011, FAE has been religiously dedicated to becoming, not the largest of Cons, but the most focused of them. Six years later, FAE is still a passionate love letter to otaku, bringing all forms of Japanese entertainment—video games, manga, maid cafes, J-Pop, cosplay, and, of course, anime—together under one all-but-pagoda-shaped roof.
What – A three-day event centered on Japanese culture, with special focus on anime and manga’s influence on creativity and culture
Friday, March 10th: 10:30AM – 10:00PM
Saturday, March 11th: 10AM – 11PM
Sunday, March 12th: 10:00AM – 4:30PM
Where – Radisson Resort & Conference Center
Who – Amanda Miller, Cherami Leigh, Cristina Vee, Kate Higgins, Stephanie Sheh, Al Aki, Noise Complaint, Nerdy Karaoke, and Maid Café Mikkusu
Price – $20-$25 (single-day), $45 (weekend)
Perks – An anime viewing room, costume contests, a vendors room (with over forty booths), an artist alley, a Japanese video game room, a maid cafe, and more
My first, and only other, trip to Florida Anime Experience was in 2013—a year when the closest thing I’d ever experienced to anime was Kingdom Hearts and Avatar: the Last Airbender. While I felt very welcomed at FAE 2013 by open-armed staff and conversational cosplayers, I wasn’t able to engage the event from an otaku’s point-of-view and felt very much like I was looking through a window into a wondrous, unfamiliar world. My previous convention experiences had only been with Con giants like Megacon and Metrocon—both events with worthy fame to their names but that focus on scooping up as many fandoms as possible into their weekends. In other words, Cons that, quite successfully, go for breadth.
Four years and 150 anime, manga, light novels, and OVAs later, I returned to Florida Anime Experience, eager to finally participate as a fully-fledged otaku. By the end of the day, I left feeling like I’d become Hokage.
To be more specific, Florida Anime Experience provided (and attracted) everything I’d ask for from a Con centered on Japanese culture. More importantly, I left the event with many experiences, ideas, and keepsakes that I didn’t have when I entered. I believe that’s a true mark of success for any convention.
I stepped into the Anime Viewing Room and caught a few minutes of My Hero Academia—more than enough time for me to scribble it down on my lengthy to-watch list. I tried two new flavors of taiyaki. I witnessed a round of Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA in action. I met three voice actresses for the first time and obtained six signatures. I put on my first kimono. Most significantly, I made a new friend while waiting in the autograph line.
It’s said that you get from something what you put into it. I think that’s true when attending most any Con. In the case of Florida Anime Experience, though, the process became almost subconscious. New experiences burst around every corner and from every vendor’s table, many of which I ran out of time (or money…) to try for myself—boba tea, the manga library, the maid cafe, henna… Fortunately, hundreds of other otaku were able to experience these novelties, with no table ever left unoccupied by a curious passerby.
Vendors reflected Florida Anime Experience’s distinct themes with katana-sharp pin-pointedness. Figurines, phone strap mascots, rare blind box collectibles, window-sized wall scrolls, dakimakura, and weapon replicas maintained a very strict emphasis on otaku interests. Video games, film, music, literature, and snacks originating in Japan also found their way into vendor’s wares, in-between all the Yuri on Ice, Haikyuu!!, and Naruto merchandise. Despite being of Western origin, RWBY unsurprisingly managed to carry a significant Con presence through both cosplay and fanart.
The Artist Ally wrapped around the centralized vendor’s hall like a picture frame. While there weren’t as many artists as there were merchants, I got the impression that FAE selected them very deliberately. No two were alike, and I don’t just mean that in the “all art is unique” sense. Each artist had a particular medium they specialized in—felt character magnets, clay chibi dolls, three-dimensional shadow boxes, traditional art, digital art… And, of course, most art was inspired by Japanese media. Not all of it, but most. It seemed FAE wanted to honor its artists’ liberties, as long as a certain portion of their wares were dedicated to the Con’s theme.
Due in large part to FAE’s selection of voice actresses, Sailor Moon was a frequent sight all around. I lost track of the number of blonde hair buns and magical staffs I passed, and that’s to say nothing of the themed panels, fanart, figurines, wall scrolls, and other memorabilia based on the Senshi.
Amanda Miller, Cherami Leigh, Cristina Vee, Kate Higgins, and Stephanie Sheh held two autograph signings each day, which idealistically allowed for everyone to participate in the meet-and-greet. I stood in line for an hour on two separate occasions and was the cut-off in front of a few dozen people the first time around. Fans patient enough to try their luck a second time found themselves rewarded, and the convention staff put a limitation on autographs and photography in order to ensure as many attendees as possible were able to meet the actresses.
Despite having never watched a single episode of Sailor Moon, I went home with six autographs from other series. Amanda Miller, Cherami Leigh, Cristina Vee, Kate Higgins, and Stephanie Sheh have impressive resumes and have starred in many of my favorite anime—Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works, Trigun: Badlands Rumble, and Naruto. (As it was Higgins’ first time in Florida, I was especially excited to get a Saber autograph.) Essentially, whether I was a Sailor Moon fan or not was far from a deal-breaker in the autograph line, much to my delight. My encounters with the actresses were brief but pleasant, and I took away the impression that they enjoyed being among the fans and hearing their personal stories.
The actresses also shared some stories of their own. A Sailor Moon Q&A with all five special guests allowed both Senshi and fans to lay their hearts on the table. Amanda Miller related how the role of Sailor Jupiter helped her overcome a period of heavy depression. I could feel silence weighing the room as listeners took in her story.
That sense of transparency characterized Florida Anime Experience. The staff were very personable and the attendees responded in kind. I never felt as though I were being “babysat” by the convention staff. Instead, I was treated as though I were “part of the show,” spoken to as an equal and subconsciously asked to help keep things running smoothly by playing my part.
When I obtained my press pass, I was informed that I wouldn’t get any special access with it—because FAE wanted me to experience the Con from a regular attendee’s perspective. Florida Anime Experience is a “by fans, for fans” event, with the playing field courteously levelled. It’s one of the most laidback Con experiences I’ve had the pleasure of attending. Other Cons would be wise to take note.
At the beginning of my review, I made a big deal about Florida Anime Experience going for depth, rather than breadth. Naysayers may argue that FAE limits itself by restricting its theme, but it’s this singular focus that allows FAE to dive as deeply and precisely into its own Con culture as it does. If you are a fan of Japanese media—especially anime—and you live in Central Florida, then Florida Anime Experience should be on your list of annual pilgrimages.
And if you have no idea what kawaii means, who Tezuka is, or which way to read a manga, but you have a curious and open mind, then you’re guaranteed to get a hands-on, cultural crash course more fun than any other at Florida Anime Experience.
Florida Anime Experience is a three day pop culture convention celebrating anime, manga, and Japanese pop culture.
Photography by Amy Covel