Anime Central 2023
Chicago's Anime Convention
Anime Central, or ACEN for short, is one of those conventions that you hear a lot about from your friends, but you never make a point of attending. It has a good-sized vendor hall, lots of events, two raves, and lots of cosplay. It’s located near Chicago in Rosemont, Illinois, right next door to the ginormous Chicago O’Hare airport. That makes it easy to attend for those out of state and the surrounding area is pretty nice. There are plenty of hotels and restaurants nearby and I didn’t see a single homeless person. By all rights this con should be on your list. So why haven't you attended?
Maybe it's because it’s in the midwest. Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with the midwest, but it just doesn’t have the draw of the coastal areas like Los Angeles, New York, Washington D.C., Florida, etc. The biggest and most prestigious cons are in those cities. ACEN has all the things an anime convention needs to be successful: high population area (Chicago is the third largest city in America), easy travel access, close proximity to restaurants and hotels. But despite these advantages, I only just made my first.
Where Are We?
ACEN is housed in perhaps one of the oddest convention centers I’ve ever seen – The Donald E. Stephens Convention Center. The entrance is nestled deep inside a car drop off area, much like the entrance to the Marriott Marquis in Atlanta (home of Dragon Con). The building looks like it was last remodeled in the 80s and the exhibitor halls seems like they was built in stages. There’s an odd, sloped walkway between two of the sections as though they missed the elevation difference in the planning stages. For some reason, it reminds me of a state fair which doesn’t quite have the budget to be a top-notch facility. I’m not trying to insult it, the people who work there, or attendees. These are just my impressions as a first time attendee. I go to a lot of conventions and I see a lot of venues. This building has “character” 😄.
There are several hotels around the convention center and a nice shopping/dining area just a few blocks away. The Hyatt Regency O'Hare is connected, but only through a bizarre skywalk that takes you across the roof of the convention center. You have to go South up the escalators in the main lobby and do a 180 turn to head North back across the roof. It feels very much like the “habittrails” at Dragon Con. Very odd. Another parallel to Dragon Con is the fact that this Hyatt hotel was designed by John Portman, a well-known architect who designed so much of downtown Atlanta, including the Marriott Marquis and Hyatt Regency Atlanta. It has the familiar open atrium, concrete walkways, and rounded glass elevators. If you enjoy architecture at all you'll appreciate it.
Getting to the Hyatt is inconvenient any way you try. A simple set of doors on the north side would have been much more convenient. There are some doors that go through a cafeteria area on the north side of the vendor hall, but they were only open for a few hours a day and were apparently exit only. The main entrance has plenty of doors but it’s the only way in and out besides the narrow skywalk. If you want to travel to the Hyatt hotel you have to walk out the main entrance and around the building, about 2-3 blocks in all.
The main lobby of the convention center has a look of a 1980s sci-fi movie. Its color scheme is gray and red with chrome and mirrored glass. Surrounding it is the registration hall, vendor hall, artists alley, guest booths, and gaming area. It’s all one large space and is filled with people throughout the day. The fact that it's all connected makes it easy to move around. You can move seamlessly from the vendor hall to the artist alley and into the gaming area without passing through any doors.
Things to Do
Panels and events take place in the part of the convention center which I would describe as a "Golden Girls if they lived in a mansion". There’s a lot of pink stained oak, floral carpeting and a marble fountain (also pink). I guess you could say this building is a victim of the times it was remodeled in. Regretfully, I didn’t attend any events and I’m not even sure where the main events room is. There were some events at the Hyatt, so maybe it’s over there. I hear they throw some pretty wicked raves, so definitely check those out if that’s your thing.
It’s hard to gauge the attendance count at this con. The website mentions 32k back in 2019, but the pandemic didn’t spare this con. The numbers didn’t seem that high to me based on how crowded it was. The main entrance lobby is big, but not huge. Most people enter and immediately head towards registration and the vendor hall. That area is very large and was well-populated throughout the weekend. If I had to guess, I’d say attendance was around 25k. That seems undersized given its proximity to Chicago, but it doesn't have the prestige of a venue like the Gaylord National. It doesn't have billboard size advertisements plastered throughout the venue like Anime Expo. It's just not there yet. It did have a number of international and domestic guests as well as industry sponsors such as Aniplex, Crunchyroll, and Viz.
A Labor of Love
ACEN has a bit of a homebrew feel. It’s volunteer run and I know that a lot of staff members have been involved for 15 or 20 years. It feels like a real labor of love and that’s great. It’s not operated by some faceless corporation. The volunteers care about their con. My interaction with ACEN staff was minimal – essentially just picking up my badge - so I can’t say much more than that. I have heard some crazy stories from a former staff member, and their fond memories told me everything I need to know. Should you attend Anime Central? Sure - if it’s not too inconvenient. The weather is nice that time of year and there’s plenty enough to see and do. Will I return? Maybe.
I met some great cosplayers at ACEN, both new faces and familiar faces. A lot of the east coast folks make their way over since it’s either a road trip or short flight away. As always, thanks to everyone who filmed with me!