Mermaids, Aliens, and My Little Pony: The Quirkiest Conventions in the United States

Longing for belonging among like-minded folks with a shared unusual passion? From mermaids to My Little Ponies, these conventions across the United States cater to the uncommon.

Mermaids, Aliens, and My Little Pony: The Quirkiest Conventions in the United States

In Sacramento, the California Mermaid Convention is just one of several annual mermaid gatherings that wash up on America’s shores every year.

Photo by John Paulsen

What do UFOlogists, Abraham Lincoln impersonators, and mermen all have in common? Fan conferences. No matter how micro you think your interests are, there’s a good chance other people in the world share your same passion. And while you can always find “your people” on the deep recesses of the internet, it’s a lot more fun to get together in person.

Or, perhaps you’re not a fanatic yourself, but are simply keen on taking a front-row seat to observe these surprising subcultures firsthand? No problem: Spectators are more than welcome, so long as they’re respectful and well-intentioned (read: curious, and not making fun of people)—and, of course, pay the entry fees. What follows are six of America’s quirkiest conventions—better save the dates now!

An explosion of glitter, pearls, and fish scales—that’s the best way to describe the myriad mermaid conventions that wash up on U.S. shores every year. First in line for 2019: MerMagic Con, scheduled for February 22–24 at the Freedom Aquatic & Fitness Center in Manassas, Virginia. Highlights from the three-day event include an underwater movement clinic; introductory freediving workshops; “merkid” meet-and-greets; sessions on mermaid styling and “creating your mersona”; a class parsing the ethics of merfolk interacting with wildlife; a grand Mermaid Gala at the Wyndham Garden Manassas ballroom; and a Mermaid Treasure Auction, in which guests can silently bid on a fancy Mermaid Kariel silicone tail and other “mercessories.”

Mermaid MegaFest, another celebration of all things mermaid and mermen, is slated for June 14–15 at the South Haven Center for the Arts in South Haven, Michigan. At communal swim meets, attendees don elaborately sewn fishtails and practice their skills and drills—everything from dolphin kicks and surface tail flips to graceful underwater barrel rolls.

Out west, the California Mermaid Convention will float through multiple venues in Sacramento from July 12–14, 2019; while down south, NC Mer-Mania will show the landlubbing people of Greensboro, North Carolina, how to make a splash when it surfaces at the Greensboro Aquatic Center from August 16–18, 2019.

Walk into the Florida Hotel and Conference Center in Orlando between the dates of August 28 and September 1, 2019, and you might just meet the Queen of England. Or Jack Sparrow. Or Colonel Sanders. Welcome to the annual Sunburst Convention of Celebrity Impersonators, an A-list gathering of the country’s best celebrity stand-ins, lookalikes, and tribute artists. The event is well-attended by talent agents and hiring reps from casinos, cruise lines, and tour companies; hobnobbing is essential and many attendees treat the talent showcases like auditions.

Of course, some celebrities and historical figures are so larger than life, they have their own dedicated conferences. The Las Vegas Elvis Festival (July 11–14, 2019), held at venues within Sam’s Town Hotel & Gambling Hall, has back-to-back tribute shows and the Heart of the King Awards, honoring performers who most accurately—and tastefully—represent the legacy of Elvis Presley.

Wind the clock back another century and you’ll discover the Association of Lincoln Presenters (ALP), a congregation of more than 150 Honest Abe–alikes and Mary Lincoln impersonators. “We are ready, willing, and Abe L.,” quips the organization that provides filmmakers, historical societies, and parades with spot-on presenters. The ALP conference will celebrate its silver anniversary this spring, filling up rooms at the Amicalola State Park Lodge in Amicalola Falls, Georgia, from April 11–14, 2019. The itinerary includes sessions on period accessories, a birds of prey show, a silent auction, and a presentation by Letters to Virtue: A Civil War Journey of Courage, Faith & Love author Ann K. Gunnin.

UFO Hunters
Founded by the late UFOlogist Lou Farish, the Ozark Mountain UFO Conference is the oldest UFO convention in the United States. Now in its 32nd year, the 2019 convention will take place April 12-14 at the Best Western Inn of the Ozarks Convention Center in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. The speaker lineup is still being finalized, but past topics of discussion touched upon extraterrestrials, lost civilizations, crop circles, time travel, past-life regression, and the paranormal. Vendors on the expo floor run the gamut, too, selling mala beads, healing quartzes, space-age sculptures, and vintage sci-fi comic books from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Alternatively, the International UFO Congress, which holds the 2015 Guinness World Record for hosting the world’s largest UFO convention, will meet at the Sheraton Grand in Phoenix, Arizona, from September 4–8, 2019. The Congress is one part convention (academics and authors are recruited as speakers), one part film fest. Hot topics include UFO crashes, alien abduction, and governmental secrecy.

For My Little Pony “bronies” (male fans between the ages of 13 and 30) at the BronyCon convention, those adorable ponies are something to celebrate.

For My Little Pony “bronies” (male fans between the ages of 13 and 30) at the BronyCon convention, those adorable ponies are something to celebrate.

Courtesy of GTX Media

My Little Pony “Bronies”
Just when you thought the convention scene couldn’t get more niche, along comes BronyCon, the world’s largest gathering by and for “brony” fans of My Little Pony (both the Hasbro toys and the ongoing animated TV series, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic). Obsessive male fans between the ages of 13 and 30, dubbed “bronies,” first got together on the subculture-heavy imageboard website 4chan to share fan fiction, original songs, and inspired pony drawings. Local meetups came next, followed by the 2011 launch of BronyCon as a one-day event in New York City. One hundred fans attended. But in the years since, the multiday shindig attracted upward of 10,000 bronies from around the globe. They come to meet the show’s voice actors and writers, dress up for cosplay shoots, and dance in full pony regalia to thudding electronica.

Alas, the 2019 BronyCon at the Baltimore Convention Center, scheduled for August 1–4, will be its last, with event organizers citing dwindling fan enthusiasm. Details of the next meetup are still hazy, but organizers promise a blockbuster panel lineup, an Artists’ Alley, the usual vendor marketplace for My Little Pony merchandise, a rockin’ “Bronypalooza” concert, and so much cornhole, your little pony heart might explode from happiness. While fans are saddened to see the convention coming to an end, the movement it represented will live on forever, thanks to the documentary efforts of the filmmakers behind 2013’s Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony and 2014’s A Brony Tale.

Of all the fringe conventions that made our list, this might be the most famous—and certainly the most photogenic. AnthroCon started out small in Albany, New York, in 1997 and grew from there. Today, it’s the world’s second largest convention devoted exclusively to anthropomorphic fandom, drawing more than 8,400 attendees (professional sports mascots, cartoonists, and puppeteers among them) and raising more than $300,000 for charity. (The world’s largest “fur-vention,” with a similar convention format, is the MidWest FurFest, which celebrates its 20th anniversary December 5–8, 2019, in Rosemont, Illinois, although its 2019 programming has yet to be announced.)

AnthroCon migrated to the Pittsburgh Convention Center in 2006 and has been hosted there annually ever since. This year’s dates are July 4–7, 2019, and the fundraising efforts will benefit Pittsburgh’s Pearl Parrot Rescue. On the agenda: workshops and seminars in costume building, animation, and character acting; a fantastical furry-themed art show; a dealers’ room bursting with anthropomorphic merch; costumed relay races; and some of the wildest dance parties anywhere. (You haven’t truly lived until you’ve seen a grown man in a purple fox costume breakdancing.)

This year’s guests of honor include illustrator and comic book artist Steve Gallacci, voice actor Benjamin Diskin (he played Joseph Joestar in JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Battle Tendency and Baby Gonzo in the 2018 remake of Muppet Babies), and Dominique “SonicFox” McLean, winner of the 2018 Best eSports Player award. Other highlights include a “fursuit” parade, where more than 1,000 “furries” go a-marching, and two fursuit-friendly sightseeing cruises aboard Pittsburgh’s Gateway Clipper Fleet. (Penguins, don’t get any crazy ideas.)

Say what?! That’s right. Even ventriloquists (aka “vents”) and the dummies who love them have their own convention. This year’s Vent Haven International Ventriloquist ConVENTion is taking over the Holiday Inn Cincinnati Airport in Erlanger, Kentucky, from July 17–20, 2019. Word of mouth (har har) says this is the “world’s best Vent Happening.” The packed lineup boasts stage shows with top performers like Don Bryan, Lynn Trefzger-Joy, and Taylor Mason. Junior and senior-citizen vents also get the opportunity to perform five-minute sets during designated open-mic sessions. Plus, two dealer rooms will be packed with vendors selling professional dummies and wardrobes.

Convention lectures, workshops, and roundtable discussions cover everything from the art of strolling ventriloquism to the secrets of cruise ship performing. Friday night brings a blockbuster showcase of international talent, including Stevo Schüling of Germany and Takeshi Ikeda from Japan. Then on Saturday morning, attendees can shuttle to the Vent Haven Museum in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, for tours. It’s the only museum on Earth devoted to ventriloquism, and it also happens to house the world’s largest collection of ventriloquist dolls.

>> Next: 8 Unmissable All-Night Art Festivals Across the World

Ashlea Halpern is a contributing editor at T: The New York Times Style Magazine and cofounder of Minnevangelist, a site dedicated to all things Minnesota. Her work has appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, Bon Appétit, New York Magazine, Time, Esquire, Dwell, the Wall Street Journal, and Midwest Living. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @ashleahalpern.
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