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 and getting Happy Meal toys. 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, McDonald’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 best McDonald’s Happy Meal toys over the years!
“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
McDonald’s Timeline: Happy Meal Toys By the Years
McDonald’s was one of the biggest brands in the world by the 1960’s, but they didn’t achieve that golden status right away. Happy Meal toys and other branded merchandise helped put the fast food chain on the map!
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 8 years later, the name was shortened to “McDonald’s.” 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 his “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 in 1969 alone, which was huge in getting people familiar with the McDonald’s brand.
1970: Even before the Happy Meal came out, McDonald’s still sold custom toys at select locations. These toys were modeled after their famous brand mascots. The vintage Ronald McDonald doll pictured here was one of the most popular.
1977: From Ronald to Grimace, the mascots were a huge hit and really made McDonald’s a kid-friendly brand. To keep up the memento, a series of kitchenware was created known 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 the first Happy Meal toy. The toys, which were branded with the McDonald’s logo, 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 Meal toys from the movie. It was the first time the fast food chain helped promote a TV show, video game, or movie.
1982: McDonald’s ran into legal trouble when 10 million Playmobil Happy Meal toys were recalled. These toys 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: The most iconic 80’s Happy Meal toys were brought to you by Mattel. McDonald’s and Mattel formed their iconic partnership in 1983, offering a Hot Wheels car or Barbie doll with every Happy Meal. The idea of “boy” or “girl” toys also were used at this time, though that language has since 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. Happy Meal toys from the original movie came out in June.
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. “An American Tail” was one of the most popular titles. Every kid was treated to four stories following 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 had its own name: McBoo, McPunk’n, and McGoblin.
1987: McDonald’s got in on the Transformers hype with McRobots. These old Happy Meal toys paid homage to the McDonald’s menu. You could get mini Big Macs, fries, McNuggets, milkshakes, Egg McMuffins, and Quarter Pounders that transformed into tiny robots.
1987: Some of the best McDonald’s toys focus on what is popular in pop culture. In 1987, it was all about the Muppet Babies. These vintage toys 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 Disney Happy Meal 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. These were 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 McDonald’s 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 1991 until 2001. It was originally only offered on trips going to Disney World, but eventually expanded to any flight nationwide.
1991: 90s McDonald Toys were not all about popular movies and TV shows. Lo and behold – Dino Changeables! These fun McDonald’s toys changed from dinosaur to a 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 Batman Happy Meal toys, including not just the Caped Crusader, but also Batgirl, 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 help protect the planet with fun Earth Day Happy Meal toys like bird feeders, binoculars, shovels, and terrariums.
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. Each piece featured a popular character like E.T. and he Bernstein Bears.
1995: McDonald’s had a superheroic year. In January, the Happy Meal toys were Spider-Man. 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 McDonald’s Avengers 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 McDonald’s Space Jam 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. McDonald’s also sold exclusive Disney plates for $1.99 each.
1998 & 1999: Ah, the late 90’s. The Happy Meals in this decade 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 from 1998 until 2004. They eventually made a comeback in 2009.
1999: A list of 90s McDonald’s toys 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 cute little teddies in your Happy Meals.
2007 – 2009: Hey McDonald’s, your 2000’s is showing! The Happy Meal toys from this decade 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 to McDonald’s in New Zealand. Rather than plastic Happy Meal toys, select restaurants offered books by famous author Roald Dahl. Who wouldn’t want to read Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory while eating nuggets and French fries?
2011: The Happy Meal was getting a lot of criticism since people believed it contributed to childhood obesity. McDonald’s changed it up by offering apple slices, smaller bags of fries, and a carton of 1% milk with every kids meal.
2012: Everyone’s favorite sponge was part of Happy Meal toys. SpongeBob McDonald’s toys were used this year to help promote the 2012 London Summer Olympics. SpongeBob and his friends were engaged in sports like basketball, skateboarding, and of course, ka-ra-tay!
2013: Happy Meals included 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 McDonald’s merchandise!
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 prove just how far Happy Meals have come in this digital world.
2018: As part of a delivery campaign with Uber Eats, McDonald’s started offering cool merchandise with every order. A lucky handful of people got fun swag like McDonald’s branded PopSockets and fuzzy socks.
2019: To celebrate the Happy Meal’s 40th anniversary, McDonald’s brought back some retro Happy Meal toys like Furbies, Nugget Buddies, Power Rangers, My Little Ponies, and a selection of classic Disney toys.
2019: Attention fans! You can now get the coolest McDonald’s swag year-round online at “Golden Arches Unlimited.” This online store has awesome merch like beanie hats, pins, t-shirts, and even 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.
2021: According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 27 million tons of plastic are currently in landfills. McDonald’s made it their mission to cut down on waste with eco-friendly Happy Meal toys. To achieve their goal of being more sustainable by 2025, the fast food chain started using recycled materials to make their kids meal toys. The first toys were adorable Batman and Joker figurines that look similar to the popular Funko Pops.
When Was Ronald McDonald Created?
Ronald McDonald was created in 1963, making his debut in a TV commercial. The clown with the red hair went on to appear in countless ads and billboards. Ronald McDonald toys and kitchenware were also used by McDonald’s to build their brand as a kid-friendly place to eat.
Here Are Some of the Best Happy Meal Toys Featuring Ronald McDonald!
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 Bozo’s show, and ad execs for the fast food restaurant were inspired to create a clown of their own to appeal to the kids.
When Was the First Happy Meal Sold?
The first Happy Meal was sold in 1979. Originally, the boxes were circus-themed. McDonald’s even went to the next level and hired children’s book illustrators to make the packaging look like retro lunch pails.
The toys, meanwhile, were branded with the McDonald’s logo. Spinning tops, erasers, wallets, puzzles, bracelets, and stencils were all included as the prize inside.
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.
McDonald’s has worked with huge brands to promote their new releases in Happy Meal toys. Some of the most notable companies include:
- 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, Happy Meal toys, or even in their logo design.
Take a look a a few interesting stats about McDonald’s!
- 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.
- Hot Wheels Happy Meal toys were so popular in the 80’s, 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 Happy Meal toys 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 McDonald’s is Using Branded Merchandise
The kid-friendly McDonald’s of yesteryear is long gone. The brand is now offering 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 custom logo products (pictured right) at the solar-powered McDonald’s on Clark Street in Chicago, Illinois. Select locations are selling all kinds of McDonald’s gear and swag right in the restaurant, from McDonald’s t-shirts and hats to red and yellow socks and bags. Ronald McDonald may have retired, but the restaurant’s branding is still going strong!
Not only that, but McDonald’s also revealed the Quarter Pounder Fan Club” in 2020. Through this online shop, you can buy all kinds 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. 80’s, 90’s, or early 00’s, you probably look back at trips to McDonald’s with fond feelings. The restaurant really held true to their original slogan – they loved to see you smile.
Today, McDonald’s is still going strong. They’re doing everything in their power to reach a new generation of burger lovers and nugget enthusiasts everywhere, whether it’s coming out with unique candles or changing to eco-friendly Happy Meal toys. So go ahead and enjoy that Big Mac without guilt!
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