Anime Festival Wichita expected to draw thousands

Organizers of Anime Festival Wichita got a surprise as fantastic as some anime story lines when they staged the first one nine years ago.

About 900 people showed up.

“It just blew up,” Randy Stuhlsatz, co-director of festival operations, said. “They had no idea there was that much interest.”

Originally referring to animation produced in Japanese, the definition of anime today includes many more kinds seen in movies, TV shows and video games.

Last year’s festival brought in about 3,000 people, and Stuhlsatz expects as many or more for this weekend’s edition.

Held Friday through Sunday at the Hyatt Regency Wichita, it’ll feature non-stop anime, manga (Japanese comics) and gaming rooms, costume contests, a Pokemon tournament, video gaming tournaments, a chance to mingle with actors who do voice-overs on anime productions and more. The hotel location gives out-of-town guests a place to stay.

“They’re from all over the place,” Stuhlsatz said of anime fans. “Last year we had people from the United Kingdom come over.”

Many are drawn by the chance to meet voice-over actors from favorite anime productions. This year’s guests include Quinton Flynn, who has voiced such characters as Johnny Quest, Speed Racer and The Human Torch; Lisle Wilkerson, whose voice has been featured in video games since the early 1990s; and Todd Haberkorn, actor-director-producer from Los Angeles.

“The drawing is what attracts them in the first place, but the people who voice these characters, they have a special place in the heart of these fans,” Stuhlsatz said.

Fans can pay an additional $35 for a “Dinner with the Stars” on Friday night.

Other big attractions are the costume contests and skits staged by participants.

“That’s where the kids really shine. They come out and show their initiative and imagination,” Stuhlsatz said.

The first festival was a one-day event at the Orpheum Theatre. A local entertainer who goes by the name of Peter Pixie staged it. Pixie still serves as master of ceremonies, but he turned operations of the festival over to Stuhlsatz and his wife, Holly Crain, after three years.

Stuhlsatz, 50, who has a regular job in sales, and Crain, who clerks at a used bookstore, also stage the Emerald City Steampunk Expo.

“I’m pretty much a nerd and geek at heart, so I’ve always had an interest in it,” Stuhlsatz said of anime.

The couple’s children grew up on anime. Stuhlsatz said that although the majority of festivalgoers are between 15 and 25, many are older and come with children in tow, and everybody’s welcome.

“I just want to stress that it’s a family-friendly event,” he said. “We do have some 18-and-over panels during the event. But for the most part, they can bring their kids. If they don’t know anime, they’ll discover it. And if they do, they’ll have a great time.”