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The sight of wigs, swords and armor will mix with the sound of thousands of eager fans at the sixth Florida Anime Experience this weekend.

This annual Orlando event, hosted during the summer months, grew out of the Japanese Animation Club of Orlando (JACO), which formed at UCF in 1992. Now, more than 10 years later, the club has matured into a three-day event attended by 2,600 people each day.

JACO became JACON, which would regularly host a convention in the Student Union, but after 2004, the club had well outgrown its space in the Union, hosting up to 6,000 attendees by the time JACON members ended the convention. After JACON, two former members created Green Mustard Entertainment and their own convention, the Florida Anime Experience (FAE), in 2011.

Tom Croom, FAE convention director and former JACO member, said FAE is different from other conventions because it focuses solely on anime.

“We ended JACON on purpose in 2010 because it was less about anime and more about everything, which has, in my opinion, become more of a problem with comicons and pop culture conventions now,” Croom lamented.

The entire convention, from the video game room to the local artists and vendors to the panel discussions, focuses on anime and respecting Japanese culture.

“The balance that we try to strike to make Florida Anime Experience different from every other anime convention in Florida is [by] integrating the cultural part of pop culture,” Croom said. “Making sure we are paying respect to Japan and the Japanese community, because that culture is what influenced the entertainment that we’re all enjoying there.”

Croom explained that the specialized nature of this convention draws fans that have a different level of dedication to anime than casual fans who might attend a less specialized convention. At FAE, many convention-goers don wigs and costumes during the event, participating in a form of costume performance known as cosplay.

Cosplay in the United States started as a kind of “adult Halloween,” Croom said, but has become a way to celebrate fandoms and show off each person’s interpretation of a character.

“It almost borders on an art form,” he said. “The roots of it still go all the way back to Japan, but the history of [cosplay in the United States], I mean, you can find convention footage from the 1970s of Americans dressing up at Star Trek conventions.”

Tina Fleming, a UCF MBA student, has been cosplaying since seventh grade, when she fell in love with Hinata Hyūga, a character from the anime “Naruto.” Fleming didn’t end up attending a convention until her sophomore year at UCF, but she still made the Hyūga costume for herself.

“When I first started cosplaying, I did it just because I was totally obsessed with the character and I basically, when I was that young, I wanted to be them,” Fleming said. “As I got older, I tried to make it into a brand … but it didn’t work out as well as I wanted it to.”

Though Fleming has slowed when it comes to cosplay, she still values the time she spent in costume.

“I think there’s nothing more rewarding than the day I was at MegaCon a few years ago,” Fleming said. “I was dressed up as Winry Rockbell from ‘Full Metal Alchemist,’ and I felt this little hand tugging at my coveralls. I turned around and there was a tiny, miniature version of me. She was cosplaying the same as me, but she was like 3 years old. I was just like, ‘This is the most adorable moment of my entire life.’”

Fleming said the little girl was so excited to see someone who looked like her that it made Fleming’s whole day. That sense of community is why some cosplayers participate.

Jessica Lexner, a senior biology major, has been cosplaying for 12 years and attends at least three conventions each year.

“I definitely enjoy the community,” Lexner said. “It’s to have friends. I have friends everywhere [because] I go to conventions in California, and I go to conventions in Texas and up north, so it’s nice to have a huge community of friends that I’ll always have for anything. And it’s fun.”

Another reason people cosplay is for the confidence that comes with the costume, Fleming and Lexner said.

“I feel like it helps people come out of their shell,” Fleming said. “Especially if they started out shy when they were younger. It gives people who outsiders would call ‘weird’ a home. I don’t think anyone really judges each other … it just becomes a home for people who couldn’t find a home elsewhere.”

Lexner said that a lot of cosplayers are introverted and have trouble speaking to people. She said cosplaying provides people with a sense of community and belonging that prompts people to get more involved as time goes on, explaining that the popularity of conventions and cosplaying has been rapidly increasing because it provides people a chance to be who they want to be.

“Cosplay is great because it doesn’t matter what size, what color, what shape, what race, what planet you’re from, you can convey something,” Croom said. “If you’re black and you want to be Sailor Moon, then rock it. Who cares? If you’re a guy and you’ve always wanted to dress up like your favorite Disney princess, do it. Cosplay, as a whole, aside from transcending from celebrating fandom to artistic interpretation, is also a celebration of personal expression.”

Tickets for FAE are available at the door starting at $20. The event will span from Friday morning to Sunday night and offers a wide range of workshops, events, entertainment and vendors.

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Alissa Smith is the News Editor for the Central Florida Future. Follow her on Twitter at @thealissasmith or email her at AlissaS@centralfloridafuture.com.

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