There's a pony eating a panini in the café of the Rosen Plaza Hotel. She's not a real pony, of course – she's actually a 30-year-old court reporter from Greenville, N.C. Her name is Aimée Findlay, and while the rest of the people in the hotel café are sporting fanny packs and sunscreen, she's decked out in blue plastic pony ears, a rainbow mane made of streamers, furry leg warmers, fishnet stockings and baby-blue angel wings.
Findlay was dressed as Rainbow Dash, her favorite character from the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic cartoon series. She, along with hundreds of others, traveled to the Rosen on I-Drive in Orlando for the ninth annual My Little Pony Fair and Convention, "the world's first large-scale My Little Pony collector convention."
My Little Pony collectors and fans travel from all over the country – and even from other parts of the world – to meet others who share their passion for a toy that's plucked at the heartstrings of little girls for decades.
My Little Pony toys were first introduced to the toy market in the 1980s. The little molded ponies with big, anime-style eyes and soft, combable manes and tails, have inspired feature-length movies, animated TV series and spinoff toys, like My Little Puppy and a grown-up version of the ponies called Dream Beauties. The ponies were originally marketed to girls, and for probably most of the time they've been around, they've been thought of as a primarily girly plaything.
More recently, though, the ponies have gone viral – particularly over the past couple of years – and they've developed a far wider audience. No longer are they coveted only by pre-teens and toddlers – they're collector's items, art objects and the source of a crazy new fandom that's earned them an audience among 20- and 30-somethings who either grew up with them and remember them fondly, or who've fallen for the pony-loving meme that's sprung up around them.
Findlay, who drove to the convention with her father, says she's been a fan of My Little Pony since she was a kid and has been collecting the ponies for years. Like a lot of the attendees at this conference, she didn't leave the ponies behind in childhood, and today she's active on My Little Pony Internet message boards where she shares her passion for the toys with other adult fans. Today, My Little Pony is something of an obsession for her. Her costume is evidence of that.
"I heard about this convention back in April," Findlay says. "I am on a couple of the forums and couldn't wait to go. Since hearing about it, I have been working on this costume. It's handmade."
It took her more than a month and a half to finish it, from the hand-stitched rainbow tutu to the fluffy ankle warmers and headdress.
She was, by far, the most tricked-out fan at the convention, but she wasn't the only adult pony-lover in this rodeo.
The convention, which took place July 7-8, attracted pony lovers of all ages. Vibrant colors loomed from the vendor tables like a bioluminescent bay, and little pastel ponies were everywhere.
Vendors can make a mint selling My Little Ponies and related merchandise – handmade throw pillows, candles, lollipops, figurines – and for some, it's become part of their livelihood.
"I made more money here in the past two days, than I did in the past three months at my real job," says Katie, who works in retail at a department store in Illinois.
She and her husband Alex have been attending My Little Pony conventions for the past five years. "I'm sort of her pack mule," Alex says about his role in their business. "She puts a lot of time and effort into it."
The couple say they made more than $4,000 selling ponies at this convention, but Katie sees the convention as more than an opportunity to sell. She says that the convention is a place for fans to meet in person, since much of the communication between them happens on Internet forums – two of the biggest ones are My Little Pony Arena (mlparena.com) and My Little Pony Trading Post (mlptp.net).
"It's a great place to trade and see a person's customized ponies," Katie says. "I treat them, myself, as art projects."
Some collectors buy up old, used My Little Pony figures – which they call "bait ponies" – and give them new lives. Ponies with missing eyes, shaved manes, scuffs and dings are reinvented with paint and dyes. Some are even remolded, giving them different shapes, personas and costumes. For instance, My Little Ponies have been customized to become Star Wars stormtroopers, zombie ponies and superheroes, among other things. Once they've been restored, the throwaway ponies quickly go from being worthless to coveted.
"People will turn a $3 bait pony into an over $100 sale," Katie says. "By customizing, people can put their own take on them."
Katie has a personal collection of My Little Pony figurines that hits the 1,000 mark; her vendor booth spanned three tables at the convention, and her collection contained ponies from all of the toy's series, also known as generations. My Little Pony is currently in its fourth generation (Gen4, or G4 to collectors) being produced by Hasbro; the first generation of ponies (G1s) are a collector's dream. Getting your hands on one of those puppies – sorry, ponies – can cost you.
"One lady sold a mint, on-card Gen1 of Mimic [a rare character] for $1,300," Katie says. "She sold it out of the trunk of her car in the hotel parking lot. Some people even sell them out of suitcases."
Which is the approach that Jamie and Brandi, a couple from Jasper, Texas, took at the Orlando convention. A paddle and a black ponytail hung from the belt loops of Jamie's black jeans – "my own interpretation of one of the ponies," he said – as he stood next to the blue-and-blond-haired Brandi, who wore a black corset over her blouse. To her side was a knee-high suitcase filled with valuable Gen1 ponies.
"We didn't feel like paying the $60 vendor fee, so I just sell them out of here," she says as she shows off the pony goods.
While some are in it for the fandom or the money, others are into My Little Pony for the artistry of the cartoon series. Cole and Emily, students from the State College of Florida at Manatee-Sarasota, came to the convention because they're fans of the newest My Little Pony cartoon.
"I think the new generation of the series, Friendship is Magic, has the most vibrant colors," Cole says.
The show premiered in 2010 on the Hub, a joint venture between cable channel Discovery Communications and Hasbro. The creative director and executive producer of the show, Lauren Faust, helped elevate the pony franchise above its reputation as a little kids' toy. Faust, who previously worked on The Powerpuff Girls, told Ms. magazine in 2011 that she wanted to show that "cartoons for girls don't have to be a puddle of smooshy, cutesy-wootsy, goody-two-shoeness."
She rebooted the series with more dynamic, complex characters and storylines, and in the process she helped earn My Little Ponies a new and unexpected fanbase: men between the ages of 18 and 35, such as Cole.
"Lauren Faust has a lot to do with it – being that she was an artist on The Powerpuff Girls," Cole says of his appreciation of the series.
Emily interjects: "You're such a brony."
"Yeah, I guess I am a brony," he replies, as he puts his arms around her waist.
Bronies (bro-ponies) are what the male fans of the My Little Pony reincarnation have taken to calling themselves, and Emily and Cole say they have a group of friends at school who meet for lunch to talk about Friendship Is Magic.
"A lot of bronies sit at our table," Emily says. "It's around 10 of us that all watch the series."
At the convention, though, it's clear that some pony fans have mixed feelings about bronies.
"There are two types of bronies," says Nancy, an Aunt Bee-esque vendor from Philadelphia working a table on the convention floor. "There are the bronies that are quirky and polite, that just like My Little Ponies.
Then, there are the …"
She stops. Her table partner, Abby, finishes her thought: "The other bronies sexualize it," she says. "They shouldn't be doing that to a family-friendly show, let alone on the forums, where children go."
Aaron Haaland, the owner of A Comic Shop in Orlando, is a brony. He didn't attend the convention, but when he's asked about the concern some conference attendees expressed about bronies, he dismisses it.
"The Internet rule No. 34 is that anything that exists, there's porn of it," Haaland says. "I take a certain nihilistic attitude about it, you can't stop the Internet. … Even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are sexualized – all the turtles do it with April. People that have a problem with the brony culture should remove the stick from their ass."
Haaland says he was introduced to the Friendship is Magic series by his friend Triforce Mike, aka Mike Pandel, who was killed last year when he was hit by a car while riding his bike. (Triforce Mike was also the winner of our Best Local Big Shot category in our Best of Orlando 2012 Readers Poll.)
"You know you have some friends that are taste testers, and Mike was one of mine," Haaland says. "He turned me onto great movies and other cool stuff, but I thought he might be trolling me with My Little Ponies."
Turns out, that wasn't the case at all. Haaland took Pandel's recommendation and has since joined equestriadaily.com, a brony forum, and the local facebook group, Central Florida Bronies, which has 595 members. He's even brought My Little Pony events to his store.
"We had a winter wrap-up party, because the ponies change the seasons [in the show]," he says. "We had a cloud-spinning game, where they had to move cotton balls with their noses."
My Little Pony has also been good for business.
"We couldn't keep the My Little Pony blind boxes [sealed assortments of pony-related stuff] in stock," Haaland says. "We sold four cases, 24 in each, in less than a week."
At the convention, there were some children – mainly little girls – as well as adults. They tried to color in the lines at drawing tables, sat Indian-style to play Pony Bingo and Price That Pony (with their parents), and skipped with glee with newly purchased ponies to add to their own collections. The parents of the children held their hands as they walked across the vendor floor, peeling their little eyes from the Gen4 ponies on display.
The convention started to die down as the closing hour neared. At the drawing tables sat Aimée Findlay, still dressed as Rainbow Dash, next to a group of little girls with their mothers. Her father stood steps away from her, holding a newly purchased poster, as she colored. The little girls sitting next to her didn't even think twice about an adult dressed as a pony joining in the coloring fun. There was no judging or snickering. They were just enjoying their favorite ponies.
And if you ask the adult fans of My Little Pony, that's how it should be. One of the tenets of the new pony philosophy espoused in the Friendship Is Magic series is that your friends can be different from you. Sometimes, apparently, they can be very different.
"Age is just a number, I didn't really mind that I am as interested in My Little Pony as the kids that attended. And it was a lot of fun getting my picture taken with them," Findlay says. "I know, when I was little, I enjoyed going places and seeing the characters I loved from TV and movies come to life. Cosplayers [costume players] really make people happy with what they can accomplish, and I am proud and excited to be able to help share some of that joy and magic."