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Aethertopia to Land Again in Tampa

It’s the second year for the immersive steampunk gathering at the Florida State Fairgrounds

Tuesday, June 11, 2019
Aethertopia Main Stage

Update 2: The organizers of Aethertopia announced on June 26 that Aethertopia has been canceled. See the announcement here. The original story follows.

Update: The organizers of Aethertopia announced on June 19 that Abney Park's appearance in Tampa has been postponed. The band will not play at the event. See the announcement here. The original story follows.

Abney Park and celebrity maker James Neathery will join a crew of steampunk enthusiasts from Florida as Aethertopia returns June 29 and 30 to Tampa. This will be the second year for the immersive steampunk event, held in the air-conditioned Entertainment Hall at the Florida State Fairgrounds.

“We’re not a convention,” says lead organizer Anthony Sakovich, aka Admiral Theo Puddleton. “It’s a very different experience. It’s more like going to a steampunk Renaissance festival.”

Abney Park leader Robert Brown was a celebrity judge at the inaugural Aethertopia, but this time he’s bringing the rest of the band for a Saturday night concert. Neathery is best known for his role as a contestant on Steampunk’d, a reality TV series that aired in 2015 on Game Show Network.

Steampunk Maker

Aethertopia will take the same general approach as last year, but with a few tweaks. It is organized around seven districts comprising a “Nomadic City of Steampunk Makers.” Each district is associated with a Maker Guild: Hatters (headwear), Inventors (devices and technologies), Assassins (weaponry), Storytellers (fiction, music, dance and acting), Artists (painting, sculpture and crafts), Explorers (airships, rockets, travel gear), and Seamsters (costumes).

The districts are essentially curated art exhibits featuring pieces submitted by makers and other creators. The organizers have been soliciting maker projects since the beginning of the year.

Projects shown in the districts are entered into two contests: The Audience Choice Awards and judges’ awards, both with cash prizes. Brown and Thirl Hupp (aka Professor Thriftium) will return as judges, sharing those duties with Neathery. However, Sakovich says that this year’s event will de-emphasize the competitive aspects. Some potential participants, he says, might have been scared off by projects such as Thomas Galvin’s Time Machine.

“It’s intimidating,” he says. “Who wants to be in a contest with some of these people? This stuff is amazing. So we’re going more toward a Grand Exhibition of Makers. I want to exhibit what people do, rather than make them uncomfortable about whether they win.”

The Backstory

Admiral Puddleton

The event has a backstory in which the districts occupy the cargo hold of a gigantic time-traveling vessel called the RFS Aethertopia, which also functions as an airship and submarine. Sakovich has incorporated the story into Season 2 of The Omega Contingent, his audio drama podcast. At the event, he plans to release an e-book version of Season 3, which has not yet aired.

“Season 3 explains the whole story of where the RFS Aethertopia actually comes from, what it is, who the characters are, who is Theo Puddleton, who are all these people that we’ve met before,” he says. “At the end of Season 3, the Aethertopia is lost in a temporal void. They are in dire straits, when they finally get a signal they can lock onto. They pull out of the void and land in Tampa in 2019. We will have an enormous amount of story and roleplaying and actors at the event.”

Program highlights

Aethertopia will have three tracks of educational presentations, one on the main stage plus a “Costumer’s Classroom” and an “Engineering” series for makers. On Saturday, Neathery will discuss leatherworking with a focus on how to combine leather, metal, and gadgets in steampunk projects. On Sunday, he’ll relate his experience as a Steampunk’d contestant.

Fun on stage

Brown is scheduled for a Saturday presentation about steampunk music. Hupp, who is well known in Central Florida’s cosplay community, will discuss how to transform thrift store finds into steampunk costumes. Nathan Van Coops, Steph Post, Matt Knowles and Stephanie Cannon will participate in an authors’ panel on Saturday afternoon, followed by book signings. Knowles, creator of the Heirs of Isildur comic series, will also serve as Aethertopia’s master of ceremonies. Other presenters include Commander Guiles, Chris Arendt, and Sakovich himself in his guise as Admiral Puddleton.

DJ VLAD will host an Aethertea Dance at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday. He’s also opening for Abney Park on Saturday night.

The program includes time-honored steampunk activities such as tea dueling, teapot racing, and parasol dueling. But in addition, attendees can play a steampunk version of Pétanque (French lawn bowling), which Sakovich describes as the “official sport of Aethertopia.” In this version, the object is to throw the balls so they form a small triangle around a statue of Cthulhu.

New this year is a steeplechase with hobby horses. Steeplechases — horse races with obstacles — were “wildly popular in Victorian era,” Sakovich says.

Two activities require extra tickets: Saturday night’s Abney Park concert and an Aether Banquet prior to the concert. You'll also have to pay extra to use the Clockyard, which Sakovich describes as “a DIY workshop filled with parts and supplies that people can use while they are there.”

Sakovich promises some improvements from last year, including better signage, more-timely posting of the schedule (it’s already online), and reallocation of staffing. And “we’ve been focusing on the visual presentation,” he says. “We want to make sure that there are lots of photo spots,” including large set pieces that can be used as backdrops.

They’re also making changes to the lighting to maintain a twilight atmosphere while ensuring sufficient illumination for vendors. And some activities previously held on the main stage have been moved into the districts.

Passports and tickets

Aethertopia players

Multiple ticket packages are available, including the Ultimate 2-Day Passport ($169), which includes all premium events plus other perks; and the Supreme 2-Day Passport ($119), which omits the Aether Banquet. These must be purchased in advance. As of press time, only one Ultimate 2-Day Pass was available. Both passes include the Abney Park concert on Saturday night. Concert tickets can also be purchased separately for $40.

The Deluxe 2-Day Pass ($69) provides general admission to the event without the premium activities. Day passes for Saturday ($49) and Sunday ($39) are also available. They cost extra if purchased at the door. General admission discounts are available for seniors, students, military, and first responders.

The 2018 event drew about 500 attendees, and this time "sales are ahead of where they were last year," Sakovich says.

Doors open at 10 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday. The event runs through 4 p.m. Sunday.

The Florida State Fairgrounds are located at 4800 U.S. Highway 301 North, Tampa, FL 33610. Parking costs $10 per day.

Aethertopia is produced by Sakovich’s company, Apseom LLC, with lots of assistance from volunteers in Tampa’s large steampunk community.

Learn more about the event on the Aethertopia website and Facebook page.

Correction: The original version of this article erroneously stated that the Aethertea Dance on Sunday is a ticketed event. It is a free event that does not require an extra ticket.

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Photos from 2018 by Hat Mac Photography, courtesy Aethertopia.

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