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July 24 - July 26, 2015
Baltimore Convention Center
Baltimore, Maryland, USA
Home  //  Vitals  //  Vitals: Newbies Guide
Vitals: Newbies Guide

Otakon Newbie Guide

By Jon Kilgannon

If you're reading this, we'll presume that you're either new to anime conventions in general, or new to Otakon in specific. (Or you're just really bored.) Welcome!




Where, Who, When, Why, Huh?

Otakon is, as you've probably noticed, immense. There are over twenty thousand con-goers and hundreds of guests, staff, and assistants. Otakon's staff is made up of volunteers. They're here to help you enjoy the convention, but they have as many as twenty-five thousand other people to help, too, and that can run them a little ragged. A lot of questions have answers in either the program book or the schedule. If you can't find an answer there you can ask a staffer, who may be picked out of a crowd by their black shirts that say STAFF on them in large, friendly letters.

Not every staffer will know the answer to every question, so you may be directed to the info desk on the third floor for questions that a staffer can't answer. The friendly help desk staff are up on the third floor, waiting at a table at the entrance to the staff corridor. They have schedules, documents, and access to the (hopefully) vast knowledge of the staff gestalt, so any information the help staff don't personally know can be tracked down in a reasonable length of time.

There's always something to do at Otakon. In fact, there are so many things to do that interesting events often get scheduled against each other. This isn't done to annoy anyone; it's done because there are only so many hours in the day and there are so many events to cram into them. The convention runs, in general, until 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. on Sunday.

A schedule is provided in a booklet included in your welcome packet. It lists everything running this weekend. You may want to check the schedule and plan out your day with things that you want to see or do, and when they're running, so that you can fit everything in. Be sure to allow yourself time to eat. It's a drag when your blood sugar drops through the floor in the middle of that marathon of Street Fighter Lexus GX-Alpha-Plus-Pi that you've been waiting all month to see.

Sometimes the convention schedule has to be changed because of unforeseeable events, such as a film shipped from a production company getting lost in the mail. (For instance, a 35 mm film sent from Japan to Otakon was once held up in customs in Alaska. I suspect the convention had to put a hit out on an Eskimo yakuza lord to get it out of hock.) The schedule placards posted outside the video rooms will be updated in the unlikely event that a change must be made.

Once you've decided what you want to do, you may want to walk around the convention a bit to get yourself oriented. The Baltimore Convention Center ("the BCC") is immense, and you can easily get lost if it's your first time in the complex. It can take ten minutes to walk across the BCC when the corridors are packed, so take that into consideration when deciding when to start moving towards the next event you want to see.

It's also a good idea to pick a location where you and your friends will meet for things like going to dinner or traveling back to your hotel rooms. A good place to meet is by the ship models in the Sharp Street Lobby on the 200 Level, or by the fountains in the Charles Street Lobby on the lower level. There are no intercom speakers in the BCC, so there's no way for Otakon staff to put out an announcement for a friend to meet you if you get separated.

Speaking of getting around the huge convention center: You're going to be doing a lot of walking. Wear comfortable shoes, or bring a few burly friends who'll offer to carry you around after you've managed to get more blisters than you can count.

Coloring Within the Lines

As you're reading this, the odds are pretty good that you're sitting in a line or otherwise queuing up to attend an event. Queuing is one of the few Olympic sports recognized by con-goers, and as a group we otaku are quite good at it. A few notes on waiting in line, therefore, wouldn't be amiss. Some events are so popular that they completely fill their assigned rooms. This is part of the reason some con-goers choose to line up before events that they think might get full. (They also line up in the hope they'll get the best seats in the house.)

First off, please keep in mind that con-goers who aren't in your queue will need to get past you, so don't block the flow of traffic through the walkways. Because Otakon is so huge, the Baltimore fire marshals pay quite a lot of attention to us, and they have very strict rules about keeping walkways clear. Plus, it's no fun to have someone walk on your hand because they didn't see you sitting in the hallway. In general, you want to stay along the walls when waiting in line. Otakon has a special group of staffers who spend their entire day going around and making sure that lines aren't blocking traffic. At times, a line will become unwieldy and Otakon staff will ask you to move. Please follow their directions. They really are just trying to help.

One important note about waiting in line that many people don't think of: Anyone waiting in a line with you is going to be waiting for the same event as you are. This means you have something you can talk about with him or her, right off the bat. Talking to the person ahead or behind you in line can make the time pass more quickly.

Eat, Drink, and Be Merry Don't Fall Over Dead

Summer in Baltimore is hot and humid. Dress appropriately for the heat and remember to drink lots of water. There are always a couple of people who get dehydrated every year, and that can ruin your entire con. Bring at least one bottle of water. There are water fountains in the convention center, but you might find yourself getting thirsty in the middle of a screening of your favorite movie. It's better to have the water with you, just in case. You need a lot more water a day than you probably think. The Internet, which is never wrong, tells me you need at least two or three liters of water a day. That's over half a gallon. I can't stress this enough: Keep hydrated!

Food in the Baltimore Convention Center is one option. I generally leave the BCC to eat, and either go to one of the nearby restaurants although those get absolutely mobbed by otaku on Otakon weekend or head across the sky bridge from the Charles Street Lobby to the Baltimore Inner Harbor. There are dozens of restaurants in the Inner Harbor, from sit-down places to walk-up kiosks. Prices are a bit expensive, but no more than usual in the tourist center of any other large city. For dining options, see the Map of Downtown Baltimore

If you decide to pack a lunch to keep your expenses down, be sure to either pack it in an insulated bag with an ice pack, or bring something that won't spoil. While the convention center is air conditioned, it can get quite warm in the middle of the day when there are tens of thousands of people moving around. Spoilable food won't survive long in a Maryland summer without serious cooling. The outside food service company that provides food for the BCC frowns on people bringing in outside provisions, so bringing in a huge box full of food for yourself and your ninety closest friends probably isn't the best idea.

If you can go out to eat at an unusual time (not exactly lunch or dinner time, in other words), do so. With so many otaku downtown on top of Baltimore's normal residents and tourists, the restaurants around the BCC can get crowded at mealtimes. If you decide to leave the downtown area to get food, expect it to take a while to get there and to get back. Baltimore's traffic flow appears to have been designed by someone who hates people and wants them to suffer.

I shouldn't have to mention this, but do remember to find time to sleep. I've seen people who were running on six hours of sleep or less at the end of an Otakon weekend. They weren't having fun; they were the walking dead. Heaven only knows how they drove home safely on Sunday afternoon. I sincerely hope they were taking the train.

Capitalism on Parade

One of the attractions of a convention is the Dealers' Room. The Dealers' Room at Otakon is huge. You could basically launch an F-16 from the floor of the room, as long as you didn't mind it plowing into the far wall immediately after takeoff.

There are usually over a hundred dealers in the Dealers' Room. The odds are that the item you've just found at one dealer's table is available from more than one vendor in the room. If you shop around, you might find a better deal elsewhere. On the other hand, someone else might buy the item you're lusting after, the moment you walk away. Your call.

If you're willing to wait, you can sometimes get a good deal on Sunday. Some dealers will sell at a moderate discount on Sunday so they don't have to ship their unsold items back home. Not every dealer does this, but it's worth looking around if you still have some free cash in your pocket on Sunday morning.

Many dealers accept only cash; no credit cards or checks. Be prepared. The ATMs in the convention center almost always run out of money on Friday. Then the ATMs around the BCC run out of money in an expanding wave, much like the shock front around an asteroid strike. Twenty-five thousand people will strip downtown Baltimore of its available cash like piranhas skeletonizing a cow.

With over twenty thousand people in the convention center, there are bound to be a few bad eggs. Don't leave your camera, your backpack, or your purchases from the Dealers' Room unattended. They might walk off when your back is turned. In general, it's a good idea to take anything you've bought in the Dealers' Room, or anything else you want to stop lugging around, back to your hotel or, if you're not staying in a local hotel, to put it in the trunk of your car.

Special People and Events

If you love cosplay, Saturday is the day to walk the halls. The cosplayers swarm the corridors on Saturday, and the cosplay event itself is in the evening.

Costumes are welcome in the halls. Otakon's staff encourages hall costuming, and the other attendees generally love to see cosplayers. If you're wearing a costume, don't be surprised if people ask you to pose so they can take your picture. Just remember not to block traffic. Also remember that you're the one responsible for not clocking the other con-goers upside the head with your prop Buster Sword. Please watch where you swing it.

Recently, Otakon has been bringing in musical guests from Japan and elsewhere. You'll want to check your schedule or other documents in the welcome packet to see when and where a concert is playing, if there's one at Otakon this year. These events are highly sought after, and can be raucous. In past years, concerts have been held in the auditorium across the way from the convention center, and the line stretched for something like half a mile.

Otakon tries to have many events at which con-goers can meet or listen to guests the artists, writers, actors, musicians, and production staff who create anime, movies, music, webcomics, and games. They will often appear at panels at which they speak and take questions from the audience. These panels are listed in the schedule and usually last between one and two hours, depending on who's speaking and how many people are on the panel. Often, a guest will also appear at a signing, where he or she will sign things like the Otakon Program Book, T-shirts, copies of manga or DVDs, and the like. The lines for these signings are often rather long, so it may be a good idea to show up for them a bit early.

The great thing about a large convention is the presence of a huge number of fan-made works of high quality. Among these fan works are anime music videos, which are one of the highlights of Otakon. There are several showings of the music videos, which run at differing times throughout the convention. The showings, which run the gamut from comedy to drama, are always packed.

There's also a plethora of original art, both fan-made and professional, at Otakon. There are two places to see original art close up at the convention. One is the Art Show, where artists have put their art on display to be purchased. The other place to see art is in The Alley, where dozens of artists from new amateurs to seasoned professionals wait at tables in order to make themselves available for commissions.

Final Notes

I'm perilously close to running over my allotted space, here, and I didn't even get to mention things like the huge video game room, karaoke, the children's programming, or one of the largest LARPs in the world. So I'll close with a few things which I think it's important to bring to the convention: Bring a pen or pencil to write down notes or circle things on the schedule that interest you. Bring water and snacks. You'll want to bring a watch. And definitely pack a camera. There are more things to see than you can imagine.


Jon Kilgannon is the founder of a computer programming firm in suburban Philadelphia, although it inexplicably hasn't made him rich yet. He's been with Otakon since the beginning, in the Age of Fables.

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