As a child of the 1980s who is now a parent of two pretween daughters, I feel a weird sense of déjà vu when I trip over a random Care Bear or Strawberry Shortcake doll strewn across the floor. I grew up with two younger sisters, so it’s like the same toys that cluttered the periphery of my life three decades ago still haven’t been cleaned up.

Among the Reagan-era playthings given nostalgia-fueled makeovers, none have achieved a second coming quite like My Little Pony. While my daughters adore the Skittles-colored horses, they belong to but one faction of the franchise’s multifaceted fandom, which includes adult collectors of the original merchandise and, most notoriously, the grown-up male fans who call themselves “bronies.”

Go online (but maybe not at work) and you’ll find seemingly boundless information on the subculture. There are pony fan conventions throughout the country. (The biggest, BronyCon, drew more than 9,600 attendees last year.) Lonely bronies seek their perfect match at BronyMate (“Where Magical Relationships Begin”). Even soldiers proudly post pictures with bright pony patches sewn onto their uniforms.

Now, I understand why my daughters dig My Little Pony. The six-inch figurines are cute as hell, and styling their soft manes with teeny-tiny brushes can be quite relaxing (so I’ve been told). But what makes a man want to celebrate something that was clearly created for little girls? This summer, I hightailed it to the My Little Pony Fair in Schaumburg to find out.

Stepping inside the Hyatt Regency ballroom, I’m immediately blinded by rows of figurines in every seizure-inducing color imaginable: sherbet orange, bubblegum pink, canary yellow. It looks like a rainbow exploded. There’s a dizzying array of wares, from beer cozies to artwork—including a painting of a badass Mohawked pony that would look awesome airbrushed on a conversion van.

This annual event began in 2002 as a collectors’ marketplace but has evolved into an extravaganza that welcomes pony enthusiasts of every flavor. I don’t see any bronies—just weary parents led by hopped-up little girls.

Then I spot a guy in a purple wig studded with horse ears and a tiny unicorn horn. This dude must be a brony.

Sort of. Patrick O’Connor saw a rabid enough audience to morph his indie-rock band into a My Little Pony–themed group called the Shake Ups in Ponyville, which will be performing at the convention. The singer-guitarist from Indianapolis goes by the stage name Twi-fi Sparklecaster, a riff on the character Twilight Sparkle, natch. But he’s not just capitalizing on a trend—he’s a fan, too. As a kid, he was more of a Transformers guy. His wife, Savannah, 29, who sings and plays keyboards in the band, turned him on to My Little Pony a few years ago, not long after the couple first locked eyes at a sci-fi convention.

If fandom were judged purely on love for the show, O’Connor says, adult zealots like him wouldn’t face backlash from Facebook groups such as Mothers Against Bronies. “Many people have this image of what this was when it started in the 1980s, when it was very much directed toward little girls,” he says. “But the new show is not like that. They’re very fleshed-out characters.”

He’s talking about My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, a TV series that debuted in 2010 and pushed the characters of the original toy line (colorful horses with magical powers) into the adventure-fantasy realm. Soon adults started admitting they were hooked on the vibrant animation and positive message, and the show became a pop culture juggernaut.

After watching a few episodes, I understand the appeal. The stories are engaging and sly, with wink-wink references, such as repeated parodies of The Big Lebowski. Still, I don’t get how My Little Pony can support two full days of panels such as “Pony Parties 101.”

On my way out of an intense bingo session, I run into Michael Arasim, the 38-year-old owner of Littles Toy Company in New Jersey, which specializes in My Little Pony goods. With his shaved head and long goatee, he looks more like a Hells Angel than a fancier of plastic ponies. He caught the show on Netflix, got hooked, and combined his new hobby with his dream of opening a toy business.

“People will tell me, ‘I don’t get it,’ ” he says. “And I always respond by asking, ‘What are you into?’ Some people will say motorcycles. Or music. And I tell them, ‘That’s what My Little Pony is to me.’ Each pony has its own personality and life struggles. Everybody can find that pony that speaks to them, you know?”

For Ron Roth, that pony is Fluttershy, who’s known for her kindness but is often unsure of herself. Despite the fact that it’s 80 degrees in the overflow tent next to the hotel, the burly 47-year-old medical equipment technician from Buffalo Grove has spent several hours in a fuzzy head-to-toe costume he crafted to honor his favorite pony. (The one thing he plans to add to the costume before he hits the Grand Brony Gala in Tampa: ventilation.)

After discovering the show on YouTube, he was moved nearly to tears. “The Fluttershy character is me to a tee,” says Roth, who has wrapped his Kia Soul in pony decals. “This fandom has changed my outlook on life. I’ve always had a small group of friends. Now I have a busload.”

As the band starts playing—“Come on, every pony!” O’Connor shouts—Roth takes a seat next to a fellow middle-aged brony he just befriended. A group of young girls twirl to the music. Everyone revels in a shared love that can take the form of a cute plastic toy or a community where you finally belong.

When I take off, I see a dad standing just outside the tent, getting some relief from the sugary beat. He says he’s there with his daughter, who’s a huge fan of the show. “I think it has a good message for little kids,” he says. Just then, a lanky 30-something wearing a white wig, blue wings, and a bouncy red tail struts by. He’s dressed as the villain Discord, a sort of equine-dragon hybrid.

“What do you think of these men in costumes?” I ask the dad.

“As long as they leave my daughter alone, I don’t have a problem with it,” he says, then pauses for a moment. “To each his own.”

If overprotective dads can live side by side with dudes in pony outfits, there’s definitely something magical about that.