You are hard-pressed to find any kid from the 70’s to the early 2000’s who doesn’t have fond memories of going to McDonald’s. Those golden arches are associated with not just tasty nuggets, piping hot fries, and Shamrock Shakes, but also smiles and nostalgic feels.
At their prime, Mickey D’s was all about the kids. The playplace, Ronald McDonald, the bright colors, and of course Happy Meals, were all meant to have any 5 to 11-year-old saying: “I’m lovin’ it.”
The days of that McDonald’s are long gone (one trip to the newly renovated restaurants with digital screens prove that much). But let’s take a stroll down memory lane and revisit some of the iconic toys and kid-friendly items that originally put the fast food place on the map!
“Few things are more iconic in American kid culture than the garishly decorated
McDonald’s Happy Meal box. Who among us can’t remember whining to their parents for a cheeseburger
when all we really wanted was the latest Barbie figurine, Hot Wheels car, or cheap movie tie-in tchotchke?”
– Kayla Webley, writer for Time Magazine
Timeline of McDonald’s: Happy Meal Toys By the Years
McDonald’s was one of the biggest brands in the world by the 1960’s, but they worked their way into that golden status. They’ve used branded merchandise and toys very early on in their company history.
This timeline shows the full story of how McDonald’s got started and just when Happy Meal toys came into the picture!
1940: The very first McDonald’s opened in San Bernardino, California. It was called “McDonald’s Famous Barbecue,” but the name was shortened to “McDonald’s” 8 years later. Burgers cost only 15 cents!
1954: An ambitious salesman named Ray Kroc encouraged the McDonald brothers to start opening more restaurants. This led to franchises, and eventually, the partnerships that would be essential for the future of Happy Meal toys.
1963: Everyone’s favorite clown became the face of McDonald’s. In his debut, Ronald McDonald looked like a creepy horror movie villain and wore a cup on his nose. Later on, he got a much-needed makeover and the Hamburglar, Grimace, Mayor McCheese, and Birdie joined the “Snack Pack.”
1969: McDonald’s was doing reusable straws before they were cool. Take a look at the Sippy Dipper Straws, which were shaped like the iconic arches. 33 million of these came with drinks the first year alone, which was huge for getting people familiar with the McDonald’s brand.
1970: Before the Happy Meal was born, McDonald’s still sold little toys at select locations. These were modeled after their famous brand mascots, with this vintage Ronald McDonald doll being one of the most popular.
1977: From Ronald to Grimace, the mascots were a huge hit with the burger-loving crowd! This led the fast food restaurant to create a series of kitchenware referred to as the “McDonald’s Action Series.” You could pay just 49 cents for a reusable souvenir glass, or spend about $1 for fun plates with the characters printed on the front. This kitchenware continued to be sold at select restaurants throughout the 90’s.
1979: The Happy Meal was born! The original box had a circus theme and came with fries, cookies, a soft drink, and a toy. The toys were branded with the McDonald’s logo and included “McDoodler” stencils, “McWrist” wallets, small bracelets, puzzles, erasers, or spinning tops.
1979: In December, McDonald’s partnered with Star Trek: The Motion Picture to offer themed Happy Meals and toys from the movie. It was the first time the fast food chain helped promote a TV show, video game, or movie, and they haven’t gone back since.
1982: McDonald’s ran into legal trouble when 10 million Playmobil Happy Meal toys were recalled since they were a choking hazard to kids under 3-years-old. Customers were given a box of cookies, an ice cream cone, or a refund in exchange.
1983: McDonald’s and Mattel formed their iconic partnership, offering Hot Wheels and Barbies with the Happy Meals. The idea of “boy” or “girl” toys also came to the surface at this time, though that language has been eliminated in this modern, gender-neutral world.
1984: Who ya gonna call? These days, it’s probably DoorDash or GrubHub to orders McDonald’s. Back in 1984, however, it was all about the Ghostbusters. Toys from the original movie came out in June, and later Heathcliff and the Catillac Cats (a short-lived kid’s cartoon) toys came out in September.
1985: My Little Pony toys were so popular in the early 80’s that McDonald’s just had to saddle up and offer them in the Happy Meals. These bright ponies were such a hit, they came back again and again throughout the 90’s and 2000’s.
1986: McDonald’s offered books with the purchase of burgers or McNuggets in lieu of traditional Happy Meal toys. The series was titled “An American Tail” and included four stories that followed the adventures of a little pipsqueak mouse.
1986: Things got a little spooky when McDonald’s used Halloween pails instead of their traditional Happy Meal boxes. These pails were known as “Boo Buckets” and each one had a name: McBoo, McPunk’n, and McGoblin. You can probably figure out who’s who.
1987: McDonald’s got in on the Transformers hype with McRobots. These toys were mini Bic Macs, fries, McNuggets, milk shakes, Egg McMuffins, and Quarter Pounders that transformed into tiny robots.
1987: The same year Mickey D’s was changing the game with McRobots, they also came out with these insanely adorable Muppet Babies toys. These vintage collectibles are well-remembered and loved by fans.
1987 – 1991: McDonald’s hit the jackpot by teaming up with Disney for toys inspired by their movies. The toys that came out in these years included The Brave Little Toaster, The Little Mermaid, Cinderella, 101 Dalmatians, The Rescuers Down Under, and many more.
1988: Chicken McNuggets were added to the menu in 1983, and the fast food chain wanted to sell as many as possible. A good way to get on people’s radar was with little nugget toys wearing cool hats, also known as Nugget Buddies.
1990: A group of 18 adults in Ohio started the McDonald’s Collectors Club. This is for all those kids-at-heart who still love the toys and collectibles that made the fast food restaurant famous.
1990: Kids could go home with 1 of 4 collectible Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle drink cups. These came for free with Happy Meals, replacing the traditional to-go cups. They’re now selling for about $25 on eBay.
1991: United Airlines offered Happy Meals (minus the fries because they didn’t reheat well) on some of their flights from this point until 2001. It was originally only for trips going to Disney World, but eventually expanded to any flight nationwide.
1991: Lo and behold – Dino Changeables! These fun toys changed from dinosaur to Happy Meal box in the blink of an eye and were huge fan favorites. If only McDonald’s had dinosaur-shaped nuggets, then we’d really be in business!
1992: Da na na na na….toys from Batman Returns! In 1992, you could get your hands on a ton of cool merch inspired by the Caped Crusader, including Batman and Batgirl action figures, as well as cars driven by Batman, Robin, Catwoman, the Penguin, or Poison Ivy.
1993: In a unique moment, McDonald’s helped promote a holiday rather than a show, movie, or video game. You could collect all of these Earth Day Happy Meal toys, including a bird feeder, binoculars, shovel, and terrarium.
1994: All aboard! From the beginning to the end of June, McDonald’s gave out one piece of the “Happy Birthday” train in each Happy Meal box. Ronald McDonald drove in a Happy Meal shaped conductor’s train, with 9 other pieces following including the Bernstein Bears and even E.T.
1995: McDonald’s started 1995 on a superheroic note with Spider-Man toys in January. In June, it was all about these limited edition glasses for the release of Batman Forever. The following year, the superhero streak was still going strong with a whole series of Marvel toys.
1995: Halloween was a fun, exciting time for McDonald’s. They could try new marketing ideas and get creative with their campaigns. Take for instance the spooky sounds cassette tapes that came with Happy Meals in 1995. There were 4 cassettes and 4 toys of the Ronald McDonaldland characters dressed up in Halloween costumes.
1996: The Michael Jordan/Bugs Bunny film Space Jam was a huge hit at the box office, pulling in $230.4 million. This led to some cool Happy Meal toys that fit together like a puzzle. The movie and these toys have since gone on to become somewhat of a cult classic, and a favorite among the millennial crowd.
1997: Let’s call this the year of Disney! From March to December, Happy Meals contained toys from top movies like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Sleeping Beauty, The Jungle Book, The Little Mermaid, and 101 Dalmatians. The same year, the stores also sold exclusive Disney plates for $1.99 each.
1998 & 1999: Ah, the late 90’s. The Happy Meals in this year were all that and a bag of chips, with rad toys like Tamagotchi’s, Hot Wheels, Barbies, Legos, Doug action figures, and most notably, the iconic TY Teenie Beanie Babies, which were available until 2004 and then made a comeback in 2009.
1999: The 90’s wouldn’t be complete without the Furby! Over 40 million Furbies were sold in the first 3 years of production, and they were still huge when mini and keychain versions made an appearance in Happy Meals in 1999.
2000: While Hot Wheels, Barbies, and Beanie Babies were still part of Happy Meals, so, too, were fingerboards – mini skateboards that you’d absolutely recognize if you wore Jenko Jeans, gelled your hair, and rocked a silver chainlink necklace.
2003: Kids were moving away from playing with toys to picking up video games. This led to Sega handhelds included with every Happy Meal purchase. The devices held retro mini games inspired by Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Monkey Ball.
2004: The “Adult Happy Meal” was a way to appeal to the grown-ups instead of just the kids. The meal included a salad, bottle of Dasani water, small pedometer, and 15-minute fitness DVD related to yoga, core, cardio, or strength training.
2006: Build-a-Bear opened its doors in 1997, and continued to grow well into the 2000s. For a limited time in May and June 2006, you could get these little teddies in your Happy Meals.
2007 – 2009: Hey McDonald’s, your 2000’s is showing! The Happy Meal toys from this time were inspired by American Idol, Cartoon Network shows, and Pirates of the Caribbean. Some restaurants even gave out Kidz Bop CDs.
2010: Get your passport ready and travel back in time to McDonald’s in New Zealand. Rather than plastic Happy Meal toys, select restaurants offered books by famous children’s author Roald Dahl. You could read Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory while eating your McNuggets and fries. Pure bliss.
2011: The Happy Meal was getting a lot of heat for contributing to childhood obesity. McDonald’s changed it up by offering apple slices, smaller bags of fries, and a carton of 1% milk.
2012: Everyone’s favorite sponge was part of Happy Meal toys. This series of toys was designed to promote the 2012 London Summer Olympics, with SpongeBob and his friends engaged in sports like basketball, skateboarding, and of course, ka-ra-tay!
2013: Happy Meals started to include QR codes that parents could scan with their smartphones. There was a ton of cool content available at HappyMeal.com, including games, downloadable e-books, and coloring sheets.
2014: Hamburger University is a place for McDonald’s hopefuls to go learn what it takes to manage a restaurant. The school offers a bookstore with a bunch of cool swag printed with the “HU” logo, proof that you don’t have to buy a Happy Meal to get awesome Mickey D’s merch!
2016: Emojis were all the rage, so McDonald’s got in on the hype with these tiny plushies. Kids could also download the McPlay App and scan the emoji with a smartphone for even more fun. These toys show just how far Happy Meals have come in this digital world.
2018: As part of a delivery campaign, McDonald’s started offering cool merchandise with every order made on Uber Eats. A lucky handful of people would get fun swag like branded PopSockets and fuzzy socks.
2019: To celebrate the Happy Meal’s 40th anniversary, McDonald’s brought back some retro fan favorite toys like Furbies, Nugget Buddies, Power Rangers, My Little Ponies, and classic Disney toys.
2019: Attention fans of super-sized proportions! You can get the coolest swag year-round online at “Golden Arches Unlimited.” This online store has awesome merch like beanie hats, pins, t-shirts, and ultra cool burger-shaped umbrellas.
2020: McDonald’s joined other fast food brands, like Taco Bell and KFC, to offer truly original promotional merch. These limited edition candles, which are scented like ketchup, pickles, cheese, and other Quarter Pounder ingredients, sold out insanely fast.
2020: McDonald’s did their part during the COVID-19 pandemic with “Thank You Meals,” which were offered for free to first responders. They were served in traditional Happy Meal boxes with a “thank you” note instead of a toy. The marketing also tugged at your heartstrings featuring real pictures of first responders as they dined at McDonald’s as kids.
When Was Ronald McDonald Created?
Ronald McDonald first showed up in a commercial in 1963. He quickly became popular after appearing in countless ads, billboards, and of course, the toys and kitchenware that McDonald’s used to promote their food.
Ronald mania took hold between the 70’s and early 2000’s. The clown mascot, and his lovable tribe of friends, appeared in all kinds of merchandise and promotional giveaways – video games, movies, clothing, Halloween costumes, school supplies, home goods, lunch boxes, action figures, drinking glasses, plates… the list goes on and on.
The love for this merchandise proved that McDonald’s had a following. It also paved the way for a future of Happy Meal toys that delight kids and collectors to this very day!
Did You Know?: The idea of Ronald McDonald came from Bozo the Clown. McDonald’s commercials aired during the show, and ad execs were inspired to create a clown of their own to appeal to the kids.
When Did the Happy Meal Come Out?
The original circus-themed Happy Meals came out in 1979. The toys were McDonald’s themed and children’s book illustrators were hired to make the packaging look like retro lunch pails.
By the end of the year, McDonald’s moved away from their own branded toys into something more special.
They partnered with huge companies for themed Happy Meal toys including:
- 20th Century Fox
- Cartoon Network
- Warner Bros.
These partnerships made Happy Meal toys something special, boosting sales for the restaurants and creating even more interest in the movies, shows, games, and other products that were featured. Talk about genius marketing!
“Sometimes people do not have time to cook. For them, a quick meal may be a short drive away. They look for McDonald’s Golden Arches.”
– Sara Green, author of Brands We Know: McDonald’s
Stats About McDonald’s
There’s a reason McDonald’s is one of the most iconic and well-known brands of all time. They’ve built a company on smiles – whether it’s in their slogans, indoor playgrounds, or Happy Meal toys.
Take a look at the numbers!
- You’ll find 37,855 McDonald’s in 120 countries and territories around the world.
- In 1973, 96% of American kids were more familiar with Ronald McDonald’s name than the name of the president.
- The early Hot Wheels toys were so popular, McDonald’s purchased just over 33% of Mattel’s worldwide production.
- 100 million TY Teenie Baby Babies toys were sold when they first came out in 1997.
- A little over 50% of the U.S. population lives within a three-minute drive to a McDonald’s.
- The world’s largest collection of McDonald’s toys belongs to a 60-year-old man in Pennsylvania. He has over 75,000 toys and other branded items in his collection.
- McDonald’s gives out 1.5 billion toys in their Happy Meals every year.
- The influential partnership between Disney and McDonald’s lasted for 10 years, starting in 1996 and ending in 2006.
Happy Meals have been a huge draw for families to come to the restaurant for over 40 years. It’ll be exciting to see what the future has in store!
How is McDonald’s Using Branded Merchandise Today?
The kid-friendly McDonald’s of yesteryear is long gone, and the brand is now gearing up to offer branded merchandise to a whole new generation of adults that dined at their restaurants as kids!
Need proof? Feast your eyes on this wall of merch (pictured right) at the solar-powered McDonalds on Clark Street in Chicago, Illinois.
Select locations like this one are selling all kinds of McDonald’s gear and swag right in the restaurant, from shirts and hats to socks and bags. Ronald McDonald may have retired, but the branding is still going strong!
Not only that, but McDonald’s also revealed the Quarter Pounder Fan Club” in 2020. You can get all sorts of promotional merch like calendars, stickers, pins, t-shirts, heart lockets, and of course, burger-scented candles.
Basically, McDonald’s merchandise is now all grown up. It’s a far cry from the Happy Meals toys of the past, but this is all in the name of the restaurant going in a healthier, more forward-thinking direction.
If you were a kid in the 70’s to early 00’s, you probably look back at trips to McDonald’s with fond feelings. They really held true to their original slogan and loved to see you smile.
The good news is the fast food restaurant is still going strong, and is doing everything in their power to reach a new generation of burger lovers and nugget enthusiasts everywhere!
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