*Update* Since I initially wrote this draft weeks back, I forgot to edit the final Otakon numbers section at the end. The drop in attendance was actually much lower than rumored, with the final numbers being 24,894. This is a very good sign for Otakon, and means they did much better than anticipated by most attendees I talked to.
Otakon 2017 Recap
I have been attending Otakon since 2003, taking off only 2006 and 2007 when I hit a rut in my anime fandom, so I’ve grown tired to what Otakon in Baltimore had to offer for quite awhile. When it was announced a few years back that Otakon would be moving to Washington D.C. due to space concerns in Baltimore, I was ecstatic. Baltimore had always been fun, but D.C. was a welcome change. In all honesty I found Baltimore to be boring overall, and outside of Pratt Street Ale House, the food selection around the convention center was lacking to my standards unless one ventured to Federal Hill or Fells Point. So needless to say, the change was more than welcome at that point.
OTAKON DAY 0
Arriving to D.C. to the Marriott Marquis Thursday afternoon, already the city looks more vibrant and alive than Baltimore. Newer buildings, cleaner streets, and many more business people walking around (who all look visibly shocked by Day 0 cosplayers). The interior of the hotel is gorgeous, and the only issue we have is we arrived before 3pm, so all rooms cleaned early of normal check-in had been claimed. The downside to staying at the Marriott Marquis was not just a higher priced room, but they wanted you to pay $12 a day for Internet access. We declined of course, and realized we could access the free lobby wifi from one of the open balconies on our floor. I also feel for anyone who drove down, as the parking for the hotel was $47 a day.
For Thursday night dinner, we end up checking out City Tap, a restaurant/bar about 5 minutes from the hotel. We sat in a hybrid couch/chair table in the back of the bar, set up nicely near a window to people watch. Their craft beer menu had a large variety of breweries and styles. I ended up ordering their Korean beef tacos, which were excellent and not too filling, if not a tad pricey. Afterward we ended up back at the hotel lobby for some more drinks before ending our Thursday.
OTAKON DAY 1
While getting ready to hit the convention at kickoff, it doesn’t take long to reach us that the bag check line is absolutely dreadful. I looked out our window and confirmed the line was indeed around the block. Waiting out the lines a bit we get to the entrance between 9:30 – 10am, and the bag line was only about 20 – 30 people deep. Those without bags, were waved on through without any slowdown. First order of business was just walking around the convention center trying to get a feel for the layout, which was very confusing after being used to Baltimore for so many years. Most of Day 1 the weather was really nice, until the evening when a huge storm hit that ruined our plans to go out to eat or hit a liquor store to buy some drinks for the room.
Day 1 Panels:
Utena (Jed A. Blue) : I joined some friends for this panel, even though I am the complete opposite of an Utena fan, and I will say Jed made it interesting enough for even myself to actually pay attention.
Christianity in Japan (Charles Dunbar): I’ve been going to Charles Dunbar panels for years now, and I can’t say I’ve ever been disappointed. He is my favorite presenter at conventions, as he not only knows how to work the room and keep your attention, but you are going to learn something every time.
MangaGamer: Typical, but not a bad thing. You go in to their panels knowing exactly what to expect, sex and bad jokes!
Day 1 Dealers Room:
This was probably the most interesting aspect of Otakon this year. We entered the dealers room 30 minutes after it opened with zero wait, which is a strange occurence at almost any convention. First thing you notice is the dealers tables actually have distance between them, making it easier to walk through. Second thing I noticed was the lack of people actually shopping in the Dealers Room. It wasn’t just more space available, there weren’t many attendees at all walking around there. You could walk up to any table without waiting for others to finish browsing, and you could buy something 90% of the time without watiing for a dealer to finish another sale. Also, a lot of regular dealers were notably absent.
Day 1 Artist Alley:
Unlike the Dealers room, I immediately noticed the artist alley was filled with more attendees. I wouldn’t say it was on the level of prior Otakons, but definitely more than what was in the Dealers room based upon space. I felt like there were more Artist booths this year, and I quickly devised a plan to surf the tables looking for something that caught my eye. Similar to the Dealers Room, the Artist Alley had significantly more room between tables, which was a godsend.
Day 1 Food:
I started the day off with Starbucks coffee and a Spicy Chorizo breakfast sandwich, nothing to describe in much detail. For lunch I found us a nice Korean food place called Mandu, with a handful of craft beer selections of course. We ended up with a nice group of 8 people, which was nice. I ordered some steamed dumplings and a Beef bibimbap bowl, which both were delicious. I also want to throw in that the bartender we had was awesome. He was friendly, attentive and welcoming. For dinner we settled for the Marriott hotel lobby bar, and unlike Thursday our experience with our waitress left much to be desired. Forgetful, not fully listening, and acted like she didn’t care much at all. I had the burger, which was fine, and spent much of that time with drinks and chatting about the day.
Otakon Day 2
Saturday was a much smoother experience for everyone trying to get in to convention center. There was barely enough to people waiting to say bag check even had a line, as the security staff was moving at a much more efficient pace. The con was definitely more packed walking around the convention center floors, with the only real crowded area being at the top of the stairs near the video game room entrance. Saturday started off Sunny, but quickly became cloudy by late afternoon, which then kicked in to another crazy storm by the time it got dark.
Day 2 Panels:
Goddesses and Totoros (Charles Dunbar): Probably my favorite panel of the convention. Listening to Charles talk about Ghibli and Miyazaki’s take on women in his films is just fascinating.
Day 2 Dealers Room:
A bit busier than Friday, but it still felt really strange to not see the dealers room overly crowded with people. Even though you saw a lot of people around the convention, it felt like no one was really bothering with shopping. Another day in which I bought a few items with relative ease, and never really had to “fight” to see a booth’s wares.
Day 2 Artist Alley:
The Artist Alley was noticeably busier Saturday than Friday, as I had to wait at many booths now to peruse through what they were offering. At one booth, I easily waited five to ten minutes to make a purchase. I actually liked the fact that Artist Alley seemed to get more attention than the dealers room this year from attendees.
Day 2 Food:
First thing in the morning I hit up Starbucks, as I need a nice strong dark roast to get me going most mornings, but skipped any food. For lunch, about six of us headed a little further out from the convention to Churchkey to have brunch and beer. Churchkey has 50+ beers on tap, along with an attractive list of bottles. For brunch I had a Bacon, Egg, and Cheese on a house-made bagel, with a side of tater tots. I also enjoyed 9 tasters (4 ounce pours) of various styles of beer. A couple of the ladies in our group had the cinnamon roll, which came out in a piping hot pot, still cooking and it looked delicious. They confirmed it was and I couldn’t hide my jealousy, but I had too much to eat already to gorge myself on more food. For dinner we went back to Mandu to try the Korean fried chicken wings, and the sauce was fantastic. I definitely recommend those, which are served in the bar area after 5PM.
When the downpour of rain came in the evening, we decided to head down to the cafeteria area and were surprised to find the convention brought in local Japanese restaurants to serve authentic food. I ended up trying the takoyaki, fried squid, and fried octopus from the Japanese street food spot, and another of us got the Ramen. Later that evening we ended our Saturday at the Marriot hotel lobby for drinks, which was the WORST experience of the weekend. Waiters and waitresses were flat out ignoring the booth area, and we waited about 30 minutes for service. We even tried to get someone’s attention and were told to just sit and wait.
Otakon Day 3
As our time was limited due to a noon checkout and we decided to leave promptly after, we spent only a few hours on the final day of Otakon.
Day 3 Panels:
Cool Japan (Charles Dunbar): You could tell Charles was on his last wind this morning, as he used a mic the entire time, but he somehow manages to keep that energy flowing regardless of how exhausted he is. I am always in awe of how he maintains his enthusiasm and professionalism regardless of how drained he can be.
Day 3 Dealers Room:
This was the day when I finally noticed the dealers room actually was crowded, and I couldn’t just easily browse, but had to wait or say excuse me to get through some booths. I was genuinely shocked it to until the last day for me to see the dealers room bustling with attendees.
As for Artist Alley and food, I didn’t experience either on the final day, outside of a morning coffee and danish in terms of food consumption.
Otakon 2017 Final Thoughts
Otakon 2017 for me was an amazing experience. The pros outweighed the cons, and I overall I think everyone I talked to also had a great time. I heard mixed things about Dealers Room and Artist Alley. Some booths had business go up, and some had it go down. There are still plenty of kinks to be worked out, as not everything was perfect. There was the flooding in the Artist Alley, which was not Otakon’s fault, and the convention center got it quickly cleaned up and the space reopened within one and half hours.
What I loved about Otakon 2017 in D.C.:
- I loved having more space to manuever the halls, dealers room, artist alley, and other areas.
- Even after the intial hold up for entering on Day 1, not once did the underground entrance from the Marriott to the convention center become a stand still or slow crawl, unlike the Hilton skywalk in Baltimore.
- The convention center staff and security was super friendly and helpful, which was a complete 180 from the majority of staff at Baltimore Convention Center.
- The amount of food places in the area, kept it from having the problem Baltimore has, in which there are constant waits at restaurants/fast food for a table or putting in orders. I can say every place we went to outside of the hotel lobby bar, was walk in, sit and eat with no wait times at all. There would be a few other convention attendees, but not an abundance.
- A lot of people seemed happier overall around Otakon this year. I felt like Otakon staff looked happier, which made them easier to deal with. Attendees didn’t seem to be as rude to each other as in years past. Even I had my moments towards other attendees.
- Restaurants and businesses that I encountered were friendly, accomodating, and showed genuine interest in what was happening with Otakon.
Some notable improvements for Otakon itself:
- Getting some of the dealers back that skipped out this year, as having the joy of seeing a larger space was immediately voided by noticeably less booths.
- Put up better signage pointing people in the right direction. Having large maps that are what we already have in Guidebook did nothing to help navigate a new space.
- Next year take your volunteer staff on a tour and get them used to where everything is. I heard too many stories of people asking for help, and getting responses from staff that they weren’t sure.
- Work with Marriott to maybe use their balcony area above their bar for photo shoots, as having them in hallways was causing congestion and not to mention aggravation from every side.
- Maybe bring back single day passes for at the door purchase. I know a couple random people I passed by with kids asking about the event were interested, but not at $100 for the weekend per pass.
Well it was definitely obvious attendance was down, even with a much larger convention center space. I have heard rumors the drop from last year (29,000+) is down about 5000 to 7000 attendees. As of this writing, nothing concrete has been announced. The drop was expected moving to a new space, as I heard rumblings of people unhappy it was going to D.C. since it had been announced. Which I think is unfortunate, because overall looking at D.C., it was truly a much better location and experience.
In the last few years of Baltimore, I couldn’t really recommend Otakon to new people, as I think even I was just fed up with the area and convention center itself. This year I left wishing it hadn’t ended, unlike recent years where I’d feel relieved making it home. Overall this was a much needed move, and I hope attendees, dealers, and others start returning that skipped for whatever prejudice or worries that had about it moving to D.C. To be honest, what could have been a shit show turned out to be a wonderful year of Otakon. One where anytime an issue would occur, it would be quickly ironed out and more times than not, it wouldn’t be repeated the rest of the weekend.
So bravo to not only Otakon for an amazing first year in D.C., but the convention center security and staff, and the local restaurants and businesses for being most welcoming to a large group of weeaboos descending upon your city. You can check out images below. All cosplay images are courtesy of Will Young and Jane Guan, while food and drink pictures are my own.