For an anime, comic book, or science fiction fan is there anything more fun than spending a long weekend among a few thousand like-minded individuals, bonding over shared interests at a convention? If you were to ask me, there are few things as exciting as walking into a convention center or hotel ballroom at the beginning of a convention and realizing you are among your ‘people’. Picking up your badge, perusing the schedule, and meeting up with friends you only see a few times a year and fully immersing yourself in the goings-on of the convention whether you cosplay or opt for regular clothes. Leaving real life behind for a few days of fun no matter whether you pack the weekend full of panels or casually playing it by ear is such a joy and it gives us geeks, nerds, and otaku something to look forward to throughout the year. Needless to say, we cannot ignore the elephant in the room in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic which has been hard on everyone the last two years and counting, a good portion of which saw many conventions and large events having to cancel or move to a virtual format until vaccines became widely available and hosting such events was less of a risk. For those of us accustomed to attending multiple conventions a year, 2020 and the first half of 2021 left a decidedly large void. While there were virtual conventions online to fill some of that void when physical events were not possible, it’s not even remotely the same as being at a convention in person and socializing with fellow like-minded people.
So, after two years of cancellations and virtual cons, I was more than ready and excited to attend my first major convention since before the pandemic in Anime Los Angeles. Ironically enough, ALA was also the last convention I attended pre-pandemic (which I almost missed, and in hindsight, was very glad I was able to attend). My excitement however was tempered with a bit of nervousness due to the Omicron variant running unchecked since early December leading to record case numbers regularly, a sentiment shared with friends I was splitting a hotel room with. I think for many of the attendees, even though we went to the convention to escape from reality for a few days, we couldn’t help but have COVID in the back of our minds given the higher risk of being in a crowded environment with a more highly contagious variant all around. But, that aside, the risk was something I was willing to accept being fully vaccinated and boosted as I headed to Long Beach to check into the hotel with plenty of masks and hand sanitizer packed.
It was easy to assume there would be some growing pains for ALA this year as not only was COVID an ever-present threat, but this year was the first year in a new venue. Previously at the Ontario Convention Center from 2016-2020, ALA moved into the more spacious Long Beach Convention Center this year to a decidedly mixed response. I understood the hesitancy or outright rejection of Long Beach as a venue since Ontario had a certain, special charm as it felt like the convention was in its little bubble in the area, whereas the LBCC’s location by the water and more touristy location overall shattered any thought the convention would be in its own bubble again. My own experience with the LBCC has honestly been good in the few events I’ve attended there, though I, like many lamented the decided lack of more budget-friendly dining establishments that were within easy walking distance of the con (RIP late night In N Out and Denny’s runs). Also gone were the days of free hotel parking, though certain hotels did offer discounted parking through the block which brought me back to the days when ALA called the LAX Marriott home. Truth be told, the new venue was more convenient for me anyway as it was much closer to home than Ontario was, close enough to where I could commute each day if I wanted to. If there is one thing I’ve learned about conventions, though, it would be the fact it’s more fun to stay in a hotel (if you can afford it, obviously) and completely immerse yourself in the convention for the entire weekend, trust me, it is nice after a long day of running around a convention center or ballroom to be able to walk or take a shuttle back to your hotel to relax and go to sleep for a few hours. If you also cosplay at conventions, you know it’s a godsend when you want to change out of or switch costumes.
As ALA has always been a more easy-going con, I felt no reason to rush and pick up my badge after checking into the hotel. To me, part of the charm of ALA and one of many reasons why it’s my favorite anime convention is its laid-back vibe and the fact there’s no real reason to rush for anything. So after relaxing for a while and settling into the room, I finally went to pick up my badge which was a relatively easy and quick process of going through bag check and presenting proof of vaccination (I had gotten a booster a month and a half prior even though boosters were never required, but better safe than sorry). As I mentioned before, lines, in general, have never been very long at ALA and even if they are, they move quickly and are well managed; the whole badge pickup process took all of maybe ten minutes for me. Given the state of the current surge and in line with local policy mandates, masks were required in all indoor areas of the con, and in my experience, I was both happy and proud of the anime community that attended this con for rigorously following those rules throughout the weekend. For the extremely rare times someone didn’t have a mask on properly, a staffer was close at hand to remind them to pull their mask up. Usually, at the start of a convention, I browse the con schedule and plan out a few panels each day I want to attend, but this time I didn’t do that. I took a few moments to soak in the atmosphere and the energy of the convention center, attendees in full cosplay, some with face masks cleverly matching their costumes, and even those not in costume with cleverly designed masks that showcased their fandom, all just happy to be among fellow anime fans for the first time in what honestly seemed like an eternity.
The main thing which sets ALA apart from other anime conventions and one over the last few years which has become my main focus at the con is the badge ribbons that many other attendees spent the weekend collecting, some with impressive ribbon trains that touched the ground from the second story. Originally a staple of the Sci-Fi con scene, badge ribbons encourage socialization and interaction among attendees as they try to build a lengthy train of ribbons on their badge through trading, by earning through a predetermined challenge, or by cosplaying a certain character or from a certain series. ALA has always fully emphasized this aspect of the con and over the last few years has had a dedicated area of the con called the Ribbon Station in the exhibit hall where attendees can earn special ribbons by donating some of the ribbons they bring to the con or by playing special games to earn ribbons along with dedicated areas for trading. My lone complaint about this area this year was the single table set aside for trading when there was easily space to have a couple of tables to allow people more room to show off their ribbons and be more spaced out. I came prepared with a few ribbons of my own to trade and give away, some more popular than others and some which weren’t popular at all (lesson learned, Coheed and Cambria while a great band is something not very well received among most convention attendees, though there were a few people excited to earn the ribbon). I had every intention of breaking my record of 200 ribbons, which sadly I was just shy of, but there’s always next year and I have plenty of ribbons leftover.
Aside from ribbons, there were plenty of interesting panels and events on the schedule and while I did attend a few of them, programming was never going to be a primary focus of this con for me. Don’t get me wrong, a good programming schedule is important to any con, but it’s not always the most important thing. Most of my weekend was spent going at my own pace, meeting people for the first time in person who I previously communicated with online through Discord and Zoom; always a fun part of any convention, meeting new friends who share similar interests. Ask any of the friends I share a hotel with at a convention and they will tell you I’m usually the first one out of the room each day and the last one back; in fact, I rarely go back to the room once I’m at the con. While that was mostly true again this year, I did find myself spending more time in the room enjoying the company of good friends who I regularly share a hotel with and had not seen in over two years. Did this paragraph sound a little overly sentimental? Maybe, but being back at a convention while obviously with a different feel pre-pandemic hammered home just how much I missed the feeling of physically being a part of the anime community that comes from attending a convention, something that was absent for two years. You never know how much you will miss something until it is gone, or something like that.
Overall, my experience with ALA this year was overwhelmingly positive and even with the circumstances surrounding COVID as well as the new venue, I felt the convention ran very smoothly except for a fire alarm being tripped on the second day. I’m excited to see how ALA continues to grow and expand in its new home and continue to improve the experience each year and am already planning for next year. I am very much looking forward to attending next year, hopefully under slightly more normal circumstances than this year, though time will tell how the pandemic goes between now and then.