This was not only my first ALA, but my first con in general. I went into it - and I'm going into this review - without any point of comparison to other cons. I've been to many professional conferences, but that's a different story, for the most part!
That said, I enjoyed myself the entire weekend, and would gladly return to ALA. The entire convention was incredibly smoothly-run, as far as I could tell. Check-in was easy, and I never saw more than a short line at registration. It was easy to find information on timing and location of panels, and I thought the fifteen minute gap between panels worked well. The cosplay gatherings I attended took exactly their allotted time. The only line I had to wait in for the entire event was for the Masquerade, and even that line was moving the entire time I was in it. Also, back in November, when I inquired about whether or not the hotel block was full, I got an immediate response from Chaz himself, and he also emailed me again right when more rooms opened up. This is a con staff that really cares about how things are going, and I think that's awesome.
On the topic of the hotel block, I suppose the quick selling out might suggest the need for a bigger venue in the future. I didn't feel like things were too crowded actually inside the convention spaces, though, but I may be used to the chaos that comes between sessions in a professional conference in my field. The hall spaces at ALA did have a lot of people, but it was a pretty chill environment; the lack of chaotic rushing (for the most part) didn't make it feel like space was a problem. The only place where I did feel very cramped was the Artists' Hall. That would benefit from being larger, both for space to walk and for space to allow more people to present their work.
Badge checks? I expected them and I have no problem with them. Big events take money to set up, and it's only fair that the people allowed to enjoy them are the ones who contributed, especially with such awesome things like free food at the con suite. Given how local cons seem to be spaced over the year, and given that the pre-reg price was only $35 for students, it doesn't seem even slightly unreasonable that even younger members could raise that money over a few months (nor is it a huge amount to ask of parents). I really don't think anything needs to be changed about the badges.
I enjoyed the programming I went to. The Masquerade was very very fun, both the skits and the intermission acts. I liked how there was a range of panel topics, from more series-specific things to general anime stuff to cosplay and industry. The latter two were especially of interest to me, since I'm pretty new to cosplay, and since I like drawing stuff. On that note, if I could make a programming suggestion, I would love to see more art/drawing panels and events. The comics industry content was very good, but why not also have some actual drawing/inking/coloring/etc. workshops? I heard talk of there being some sort of Homestuck drawing gathering, but nothing concrete about time or place, so why not actually formally schedule some sort of drawing room or event? I think that'd be a fun addition to the con.
Lastly, I'd gotten the impression from these forums that ALA is awesome for cosplay, and it exceeded my expectations. So much creativity and so much awesome execution! It was great to see everyone in the halls, and the response to my own costumes (even my weird OCs) made me feel like less of a total noob.
Soooo. Long story short, I thought ALA was great and would gladly go again. Maybe it was even more awesome in the past, I don't know, but it's still a very fine con now.