Palm trees and Padawans, beaches and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In a word: HawaiiCon.
It’s really, really hard to separate the pop culture fandom soak and the, well, literal soak in the ocean that are both experiences intrinsic to HawaiiCon, a yearly affair which has slowly grown with each outing. Taking place on the island of Hawaiʻi (a/k/a Big Island) in the western resort community of Kailua, the convention is quite possibly the most relaxing and peaceful one I’ve ever been to. This year’s con took place at the Mauna Lani Bay resort hotel, an assortment of structures open to the breeze and thick with plant life, as well as many colorful sea creatures inhabiting its cultivated network of ponds; the green sea turtle (Honu) which is the animal mascot of the island actually occupies the resort hotel itself, with young ones growing in these man-made lakes before being released into the wild at adulthood.
Among all this vibrant life and scenery are the vibrant (and scenic) attendees themselves, many of whom travel from Hawaii’s other islands or the continental 48 for the event. Beyond these individuals, numbered among many visitors and volunteers are Big Island residents themselves, many from farther corners of the island like Kalapana. It’s an environment destined for a great time, but also laid out a little differently than many other cons. Its main venue consists of a large ballroom, where tables and booths surround a stage which features many of the event’s scheduled speakers. The appearance is something like a bazaar with orators at its center, surrounding each ongoing panel with a polite murmuring of commerce.
Aside from the main pavilion, coordinated goings-on occur throughout and around the hotel grounds. Food trucks and stands form a tent town in a patch of grass with tables and chairs, and other panels fill a series of rooms around tables devoted to cosplay design. Mix in the return walks to your hotel room and you’re looking at a comparable amount of steps to your much larger cons on your fitness tracker (my average daily was between 25 to 30K). Then again: you could toil in a mass of hundreds inching through a hallway at the turn of the hour at the Javitz Center, or stroll through the sea-scented breezes of Kailua-Kona.
Aside from the engaged congoers and cosplayers (more on the latter in a moment), HawaiiCon is a generally strong draw for featured guests. The effect is rather curious: top talent willing to make the trip are treated to an unequaled environment for a geek convention, although they’ll be chatting up rooms much smaller than any they’re used to seeing. One featured guest who has been a part of the con since the start is Bill Morrison, former art director for Bongo comics, the label responsible for The Simpsons and their related comics (note: he’s also been recently tapped as the new executive editor of MAD Magazine). Mr. Morrison is no stranger to massive Q&A panels, like the ones he’d headline at SDCC with hundreds to thousands of attendees in a room. In contrast, HawaiiCon’s most-attended panels cap at 100 or so seats, although most will track much lower. That being said, there is an intimacy and familiarity with the panelists and their audience here, one that situates itself reasonably with the presence of the setting. This is the reason Morrison has been coming to the event as a guest since the very first year, a schedule which is doubtful to change anytime soon.
The guest-list is as diverse as the attendees, skewing this year to sci-fi and including people like Star Wars’ Daniel Logan, Temuera Morrison, Paul Blake (a/k/a Greedo himself), a full cadre of true-blue scientists, and sci-fi writer Nnedi Okorafor, hot on the heels of her newly announced HBO series treatment. Additional guests include famous cosplayers like Tatiana DeKhytar and Larissa Paige, Guinness World Record-holding voice actor Steve Blum, and Game of Thrones designer Mog Park. For accessibility to brilliant creators and performers in their most relaxed mindstate possible, HawaiiCon is virtually incomparable.
What you’re getting is the peaceful alternative to massive mobs sardined up in NYC or San Diego, with no people camped out for hours to ensure a seat at a signature panel. I rarely saw anyone fretting in a late sprint to an event, making the scene pleasantly sleepy, almost dream-like at times. Assisting this aesthetic are the devoted cosplayers, a fitting adjective for those who arrived with massive, ornate, sometimes heavy homemade costumes that must have been positively sweltering in the heat. A few scheduled convention group photos showcase this passion, a pastime which adds an interesting layer of surreality to the backdrop. Speaking with the cosplayers that travel from the other parts of Big Island, HawaiiCon appears to be a grateful new rallying point in their yearly schedule, a local island event that brings people together from parts unknown and also offers worthwhile activities for families.
An entire section of the convention map is devoted to the aforementioned cosplayer designworks, right in front of the secondary panel rooms, and younger attendees could be found throughout the weekend there, learning how to design costume pieces. This age-accessibility seems another detail notable to HawaiiCon and extending to their gaming room, which featured many tabletop RPG demos, trainings, workshops, and even some VR setups. On the whole, the convention felt like a superb destination for Hawaiian parents, who could stroll lazily throughout the resort locale with their continuously enthralled children.
Personally, this was my first experience of Hawaii: a profoundly entertaining way to discover the island and, in speaking to the out-of-towners, I’m not alone in this estimation. Founder and filmmaker GB Hajim has managed to combine the ease of a gorgeous, luxurious escape with the intellectual draw of indulging in your favorite fandoms. As the con grows it may transform yet again; it was formerly at the Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel in its early Kickstarter days, but needed to find a larger resort. For now, those interested should consider saving money and blocking off some time in their 2018 schedule to escape across the ocean and into another world.