A few weeks ago, while the gaming world was abuzz at PAXeast over in Boston, Christians were commemorating Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem, and die-hard Westerosi were anticipating the return of their favorite soap opera reality show, I had the benefit of attending the 6th incarnation of Zenkaikon in Lancaster, PA. A mid-sized convention teeming with local flavor, ambitious guests and a location to die for, this con often falls under the radar of so many congoers in the mid-Atlantic and New England regions, which is unfortunate given how enjoyable this event has become in the past three years.
I started attending Zenkaikon in 2011, its last year at the Valley Forge convention center, before that location was turned into a casino. I had mixed reviews about both the con and the crowd that year, but since I’m (rarely) never one to judge on first impressions alone, I gave it a second try last year, when it occupied a lovely May weekend at the Expo center in Oaks. At the end of those two days of fun and fellowship, I discovered the con would be moving back to March, and into the fancier Lancaster County Convention Center, another hour away from its previous locations. I lamented the loss of mall-crawling at King of Prussia and the easy access to mass transit, but given how enjoyable the con had been at Oaks, I knew I would be going back regardless.
Needless to say, like a fine wine, Zenkaikon gets better with age.
Let me just say this: the fact that there’s a farmer’s market across the street made eating a VERY pleasurable part of the weekend. Local meats and cheeses (which I brought home in droves and gorged upon for DAYS after the con), excellent coffee roasters and surprisingly awesome cuban food made for a very happy con indeed: you couldn’t walk through the small market without seeing plenty of cosplayers interacting the the locals (for good or ill), and the local creamery offered free scoops to anyone in costume. Lancaster was happy to have the con, and the con was very happy to have Lancaster.
Seriously, you would wander into stuff like this ALL WEEKEND if you took the stairs…
The convention center itself was a fine spot, with a huge vendor room, panel seating on par with Otakon, and plenty of free space for gatherings and cosplay shoots. This is one of those sites Zenkaikon can grow into with ease, and likely will: next year the con should have access to the entire top floor of the convention center, a location they only had for Friday this year. That means more panels, more events and more “roaming” space for wayward congoers.
Plus the convention center also has an archeological site AND a back hallway system that feels like something out of Lord of the Rings. Seriously. It was like walking through the mines of Moria at one point.
Zenkaikon has always had surprisingly solid programming for a con its size. This year was no exception, as more theoretical fare found its way into panel rooms. The Friday night burlesque show, hosted by Uncle Yo (and featuring me in a creepy mask and hatchet), was easily the best one I’ve ever seen, Greggo’s Game Shows pulled off a solid reworking of the Pokemon game he debuted at Ichibancon, and the media guests were both friendly and informative. I would even go so far as to say there was more to do at Zenkaikon this year than at a lot of the smaller cons I went to last year. The audience asked for more, and more was given back to it.
I also will go on to reiterate my assertion that I had the best Friday I’ve had at a con in the past few years at Zenkai 2013. No lie, I was kept pleasantly busy all day, culminating in probably the best presentation of “Kowai” I have ever given, before hamming it up at the burlesque show. I didn’t want the day to end (and technically it didn’t, as I found myself in a huge Cards Against Humanity game a scant 90 minutes later), it was that enjoyable.
This man. Seriously, THIS MAN. Most epic cosplayer of the weekend.
I love Zenkaikon’s attendees. I really do. This con has one of the most welcoming communities of any con in the mid-Atl. From random meetups in the halls to encouragement of cosplayers, the people who attend Zenkaikon make sure everyone feels welcome and at home. Consider the case of one attendee, who found herself sitting on the Pokemon game show Saturday night: a girl dressed as Mei from White 2, found herself in a trivia battle with another potential Pokemon master. Flustered and in over her head, she attempted to throw in the towel during the final part of the opening round of the show, and requested to simply forfeit and leave the stage. The crowd, however, would have none of that, as they cheered her on and made sure she knew they were solidly behind her. And while she didn’t win the round, the ovation she got as she left the stage was nothing short of inspiring.
THAT is the power of this community, and that is why Zenkaikon is worth attending. Forget programming, guests and vendors: attend this con simply to meet other supportive, like-minded fans, and develop connections with them. I guarantee you will never be bored, nor will you feel alone. While it may not draw the numbers of some cons, the quality of the fans at Zenkaikon more than makes up for the quantity.
Zenkaikon might not have the flash or flair of PAX, or the size and variety of Otakon, but that doesn’t mean this con should be ignored. While you won’t find Funimation announcements or giant cosplay summits during the weekend, you will find a welcoming community full of frenetic (if tempered) energy and fun times. Zenkaikon manages to tread that perfect line between growth and hearth, and it shows in the excited attendees, happy gatherings and generally relaxed atmosphere that permeates that con every year. Despite being smaller, it’s definitely worth the visit (as my friend Doug made all the way from Boston, eschewing PAX this year despite living right next to it). So if you have time and some cash to splurge, consider hitting up Zenkai next year. You will appreciate it.