Looking Back on AnimeNEXT 2023

AnimeNEXT has a special place in my heart as one of the first anime conventions I ever attended. I went to this con five times: once in middle school (2013), three times in high school (2014 through 2016), and once in college (2018). The latter ended up being the last con I attended before taking a five-year hiatus from cosplaying and going to anime conventions. It is fitting, then, that AnimeNEXT was also where I made my return debut in 2023. Fellow Fandom Spotlite writer Hailey and I attended all three days, and I was so excited to be back in the world of conventions that I viewed the whole weekend through rose-colored glasses. It wasn’t until after the convention that I realized what a mess AnimeNEXT 2023 had actually been.

A much younger me (left) posing with two other Hetalia cosplayers at my first AnimeNEXT in 2013

Since I had fallen out of the convention community after 2018, I was unaware of the post-pandemic changes that had occurred regarding AnimeNEXT. I knew without having to look it up that the convention was canceled in 2020 because everything was canceled in 2020, and it wasn’t surprising to see that they attempted a “virtual convention” in 2021. But I was unaware, that the 2022 convention was canceled altogether due to problems with the Atlantic City Convention Center. I wasn’t particularly impressed with the Atlantic City location (I much preferred when the convention was held in Somerset, although this may just be due to the nostalgia), so the change in venues didn’t bother me. What I didn’t realize, however, was that the new location was actually two locations: the
New Jersey Convention and Exposition Center (NJCEC) in Edison and the Hyatt Regency hotel in New Brunswick.

The convention was too large to fit into just one of these buildings, so in theory it makes sense to divide it across the two… except for the fact that these venues are 20 minutes away from each other. Walking between the two locations was impossible: besides the fact that it would take over two hours by foot, it would also involve crossing bridges and busy highways. The convention’s solution to this distance was a free shuttle that ran back and forth between the locations. The shuttle arrived on schedule each time that I used it, and the only problem I encountered was that I left a prop behind on the seat, which was nobody’s fault but my own (although one could argue that I wouldn’t have lost it if there had been no need for a shuttle in the first place); however, many guests had a much worse experience than I did. Lots of disgruntled attendees complained that the shuttles were inconsistent and often tardy. This made it difficult to attend time-sensitive events. The Shuttles & Transportation section of the convention’s website strongly encouraged guests to use carpooling, ride share apps, or public transportation; it failed to mention, though, that the only option for parking at the Hyatt is a garage that can cost up to $24. 

Me (right) and Hailey (left) on the shuttle to the Hyatt Regency. I ended up leaving the pink sticky hand that I’d been using as Hisoka’s Bungee Gum weapon on this shuttle.

Both buildings had plenty going on at all times. The NJCEC housed the Artists’ Alley and Dealers’ Room, and was also where the big performances (Cosplay Burlesque, Masquerade, Cosplay Pro Wrestling, BLUE ENCOUNT concert, and Dom Palombi concert) were held. The car show, arcade games, Saturday night dance party, hall cosplay, charity auction, cosplay chess, and all autograph sessions occurred in the NJCEC as well. All panels, workshops, and game shows, plus the AMV contest, manga library, tabletop games, video games, open mic karaoke, and cosplay repair, were located at the Hyatt. The convention’s full schedule is still available online here.

Despite the hassle of traveling back and forth between the two venues, I genuinely did enjoy myself at AnimeNEXT 2023. On Friday, we didn’t arrive until 2:00 PM since we both had to work until 12:30. This isn’t to say we didn’t get to spend a lot of time at the convention, though: we stayed until about 10:00 PM. During these eight hours, we visited the manga library, attended three panels (including a very entertaining one about sports anime), and enjoyed dinner at Rakkii Ramen, which was just a five-minute walk from the hotel.

Saturday had the most back-and-forth. We parked at the NJCEC to avoid paying for parking at the Hyatt and took the 1:00 PM shuttle to the hotel so that I could participate in the Cosplay Dating Game at 2:00 PM, which was a blast (even if I didn’t end up being chosen for a date). We then caught the 4:00 PM shuttle back to the NJCEC so we could go shopping at the Artists’ Alley and Dealers’ Room before the BLUE ENCOUNT concert at 9:00 PM. Unfortunately we didn’t know the food court had closed at 7:00 PM (even though the Artists’ Alley didn’t close until 8:00 PM and the car show didn’t close until 9:00 PM), so after changing out of our cosplays in my car, we ended up ordering takeout from Panda Express for dinner and ate while we waited in line for the concert. I noticed at least one other group of congoers doing the same thing.

I participated in the Cosplay Dating Game as Inosuke Hashibira from Demon Slayer (center).

We spent the entire day at the Hyatt on Sunday (although, once again, we left my car at the NJCEC for the free parking). As a former choir kid and president of an A Cappella group, one of my highest priorities for the weekend was to participate in karaoke, but I didn’t get the chance until Sunday. I performed “Believe” by Cher while dressed as Hisoka from Hunter x Hunter. These are the types of things you can only see and do at an anime convention!

The biggest highlight of the entire convention, in my opinion, was the BLUE ENCOUNT concert. I am a total concert junkie and had been to 36 concerts by the time of AnimeNEXT 2023; however, it’s a rule of mine that I never go to concerts where I don’t know any of the artists. That being said, I was thrilled to find that AnimeNEXT’s headlining musical guest was a band I was already familiar with! I knew of BLUE ENCOUNT from their performance of the Banana Fish opening song “FREEDOM” and soon realized that they were also behind the opening song for season 4 of My Hero Academia, “Polaris.” Even though we were pretty far back in the entrance line, we somehow managed to grab excellent spots once we got inside. Not only were we incredibly close to the stage, we also had chairs! I have never been so close to a stage while seated (even including the 11 concerts I have been to since AnimeNEXT). The band clearly knew their audience, because their setlist was filled with anime openings and endings including “Z.E.R.O.” from Code Geass, “Hummingbird” from Ahiru no Sora, and both of the songs I mentioned earlier. I would have happily paid the price of a Saturday-only ticket just for that concert alone, so the fact that it was included with admission to the con was incredible. 

Sadly, it seems that my generally positive experience was not universal. On February 9th, the convention announced via their Instagram that there would not be an AnimeNEXT 2024. Reactions were mixed, but the general consensus was that this decision came as no surprise. Casa B. wrote in the official AnimeNEXT fan group on Facebook, “With how things went last year, this isn’t surprising. What was surprising was that it was even held last year in the first place. I’m glad you guys still tried in 2023, I really am. But you fell short. I hope this doesn’t mean no more Anext ever again, but at the same time, as the years pass and more issues stockpile, these things are harder and harder to come back from.” Gate M. emphasized the poor organization of the convention by writing, “Whichever management took over from 2020 and on has made this drastically bad. The sheer mismanagement for years now is ridiculous. It’s now 5 years in a row counting 23 because last year was really bad. Will the con ever even come back? Whoever is In charge needs go either be replaced or get better skills because this is very bad.” Char F. even went so far as to call the convention “a clown show.” There has been no word on the status of AnimeNEXT 2025.

About a month ago, I returned to the Hyatt Regency New Brunswick for a work conference. It was impossible not to think about how the last time I’d been in that building had been for an anime convention, and it was poignant to recognize that my first AnimeNEXT in 5 years may have been the last AnimeNEXT ever. The future of this convention that holds so many wonderful memories for so many people is very unclear, but one thing is certain: if AnimeNEXT is going to make a comeback, a lot of changes need to be made.

About Gabby Bibus

Gabby has been obsessed with anime since she was just 9 years old, and is proud to say she has watched over 200 different series. But that’s not even her biggest claim to fame: she also lives on a farm with over 80 goats! Although anime and animals are her two favorite things in the world, she also loves music, books, and movies. Her day job is a middle school ESL teacher, and she is also a staff member at the New Jersey Renaissance Faire.

View all posts by Gabby Bibus

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