Otakon 2018 was held August 10th -- 12th, at the Walter E Washington Convention Center, Washington, DC
Otakon announced Monday, the 13th, that attendance had increased by more than 5,000 compared with 2017. This is an increase of more than 20%, after the event had seen a decrease in attendance of 14% for the first year in Washington, DC.
After a rocky start in Washington DC, seeing a further decline in attendance similar to 2014 and 2015, Otakon 2018 has grown again to approximately its 2016 numbers. While in Baltimore in 2013 and 2014 Otakon reached attendance numbers of around 34,000, in excess of the comfortable capacity of the Baltimore Convention Center. The Washington DC Convention Center is considerably larger and Otakon used only part of the available space, and none of the Marriott Marquis convention space as it had in 2017. In North America that weekend were 26 other fandom conventions, and another 65 either the weekend preceeding or following Otakon. Compared with 2013, five years prior, there were only 36 total convetions on the same or adjacent weekend as Otakon. Part of the recent decline is likely due to the overcrowding of fandom conventions on the calendar.
Quite noticable were the many ads playing over the weekend on all the convention center media displays. Dragon Ball and Fate/Grand Order had the biggest adventizement presence at the con. Otakon has traditionally been a for-fans-by-fans convention, though the reality of running a large event today with so much competition makes the need for corporate sponsorship grow. A more industry-oriented convention may drive away some fans, but as the industry overall grows in the United States it's likely to be a net gain in attendance for Otakon.
The convention itself went off fairly well. With such a large event and so many different people running simultaneous events certain errors happened and corrections had to be made. But overall the event really must be called a success. Most panels during the day were full or at least had long lines queued up before they started. Viewing rooms were often full enough to make finding seats non-trivial. Panels, even the ones scheduled against major events, also managed to bring in an audience. Late night events were very packed, an indication that a large number of attendees weren't just coming in for the day but were staying for the whole weekend.
It was the first time in many years that Otakon offered something other than the standard membership, which grants access to the convention for all three and a half days. Discounted memberships were available starting Saturday (for Saturday and Sunday) and on Sunday (for Sunday only). The hotel rates in the area, plus the cost of traveling in, likely persuades a number of attendees to commute in instead of stay for the weekend. A slight discount for attending only the weekend probably drove down numbers for Friday attendance but increased the numbers for Saturday. As mentioned above, total attendance was up by around 5,000. How much of this is thanks to the pricing options and how much of it is Otakon attendees getting used to the new location is an important question. However, with the overall success of this year we shouldn't be surprised to see Otakon growing at least slighly for 2019.
The biggest single event of the convention was undoubtedly the Distant Worlds Final Fantasy concert with Nobuo Uematsu (composer) and Arnie Roth (conductor). This Friday evening event had people lined up two hours in advance, with those trying to line up earlier dispersed until 4:30 pm. The Distant Worlds concert features a selection of the most popular Final Fantasy songs accompanied by scenes from the game displayed on big screens. The concert has made the tour around the United States for several years now and has typically played in dedicated concert venues (including twice at the Baltimore Meyerhoff symphony hall) but has had a few convention stops, as well. I didn't personally attend the event at Otakon but got reports it was everything one would expect. And unlike the Anime Matsuri concerts at Otakon in 2017 which required separate ticket purchases (well worth the money), this was part of the convention and open to everybody.
Cosplay at Otakon this year was much like it has always been. The August heat tends to make cosplayers avoid the biggest, bulkiest costumes and instead opt for lighter, easier-to-wear costumes. While in the Baltimore Inner Harbor, Otakon attracted a lot of cosplayers who came to make use of the many great photo locations around the Baltimore Convention Center. Last year the Carnegie Library, direcly across the street from the convention center, was open and a favorite spot for cosplayers and photographers. This year it was closed off for renovations. Instead the favorite outdoor location this year was the church steps cater-corner across from the convention center entrance. Nobody had difficulty shooting there to the best of my knowledge.
The favored indoor location for cosplay photos was the second floor of the Marriott Marquis lobby, which has well-lit wide open areas with pleasing backgrounds (mostly the bamboo on the perimiter and the massive sculpture in the center) and little general foot traffic other than other cosplayers and photographer. The convention center itself is rather well lit with natural light, at least in some places. The J Street bridge has great lighting (but lots of traffic), and the basement exhibit hallways have a number of areas with nice brick backgrounds that one can use without blocking traffic. Otakon itself has a very large photo booth area set up for free photos -- prints and digital copies cost money, though. The Baltimore Convention Center hid some of its great photo locations for a while, and over time I think photographers and cosplayers will find their niche in Washington.
The most common costumes were of the many characters from My Hero Academia, currently the most popular anime both in Japan and elsewhere. Final Fantasy costumes were also in abundance, especially on Friday. Cosplayers are always quick to pick up on new trends, and various characters from the new show Cells at Work were common, thanks probably to their fairly straightforward design and ease in pulling together a costume.
Coverage from Otakon last year on location is still fairly applicable. The convention center is in the middle of a world-class city and food options abound in every direction. However, there are relatively few actual fast-food restaurants nearby. Almost anything within sight of the convention center is either a full-service restaurant or a (pricy) specialty restaurant. Chinatown and the Verizon Center are only a few blocks away and feature many standard fare fast-food and Chinese options. But it's just far away enough, and usually busy enough, to make a quick run to get food impossible. On the flip side, those looking for a good value at a sit-down restaurant were not disappointed. Otakon coincided with the beginning of Restaurant Week and many places had great options at good prices. The food in the area is generally very high quality without the establishments being uptight about attire or behavior -- at least at the ones I went to.
An unfortunate change from last year was the food court inside the convention center. Though slighly pricy, it is extremely convenient. Last year it had probably twice as many options as this year, and the options this year were generally more generic than the asian and asian-inspired foods Otakon attendees typically prefer. It's unclear if Otakon runs the food court or if the convention center itself does. This year the stand that sold good onigiri last year had "rice sandwhiches," which were essentially large seaweed wraps but with American style tuna salad in them. It's what would happen if somebody completely unfamiliar with anime fan culture tried to cater to the Otakon crowd. To contrast, the crepe station there was phenominal with plenty of options.
Those who wish to save some money or were unable to find a room nearby the convention center can find various locations along Route 50, which leads from in from Maryland directly to the convention center. Though once a rather unsavory part of town, new development along the corridor has improved it quite a bit and a number of affortable but well-equiped options are available for those who are willing to walk (it's a long walk) or taxi/uber/lyft in from a mile or two away. For those happy to return from the convention around dinner time can also take the metro out to any of the surrounding suburbs where hotels are also available at much better rates.
Finally, a brief warning to others who drive and park locally for the weekend. Many garages close over the weekend. While you may be able to park there, you won't be able to leave until Monday. For most people this would be a hassle at best, a small disaster at worst. The local attendants usually ask, but with weekday traffic in DC can be aggrivating and you don't want to waste time going to garages only to find out you can't really park there. Those who come in early enough can take advantage of many "early bird" specials at the garages. Likewise, those who park at Metro stops can avoid paying for parking by leaving on Sunday, when parking is free.
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Though Otakon Vegas has shut its doors, Otakon itself appears to be back on the upswing. Atendance is up, events are going well, and industry support is growing. The Walter E Washington Convention Center is overall a fantastic facility which will accomodate Otakon for years and years to come. As staff and attendees get used to the area and the convention center it ought to feel more like home again, as Baltimore had for so long. Weekenders will be able to enjoy lots of programming and commuters, wether for one day or all three, can get a mostly-full experience without the need to book a local hotel. Attendees who plan accordingly will find dining options to suit their tastes and budget. For some, Otakon is an excuse to visit Washington DC, with many amazing museuems open and free only a few blocks away. Despite the glut of conventions occuring these days, Otakon still remains one of the oldest and largest on the east coast and will probably be a mainstay for many fans for years to come.
Otakon will return on July 26th -- 28th, 2019, to the Walter E Washington Convention Center, Washington, DC