A Brief History of McDonald’s Happy Meal Toys

Do you have happy memories of McDonald’s Happy Meals? If so, you’re certainly not alone. The McDonald’s Happy Meal has been a popular staple of the fast-food chain for decades. More than just a kid’s meal, the McDonald’s Happy Meal is an iconic piece of American culture. But the success of the Happy Meal was far from a sure thing.

The history of McDonald’s Happy Meals is a series of big risks and unorthodox business decisions. Here’s a look at how the Happy Meal was created, and what changes it’s undergone over the years:

The Early Days of McDonald’s Restaurants

McDonald’s existed for decades before introducing the Happy Meal. In fact, the entire franchise started with a restaurant called Airdrome, and they didn’t sell hamburgers – they sold hot dogs.

The year was 1940. The tiny, but popular, Airdrome restaurant had just moved to a section of Route 66 in San Bernardino, California. The owners of the restaurant? Two local brothers named Dick and Mac McDonald.

The two brothers were business-savvy and quick to adapt. Once established in their new location, they noticed they were selling far more hamburgers than hot dogs. So they shifted their focus towards making the best hamburgers they possibly could.

While certainly the hamburgers were tasty, the McDonald brothers’ biggest innovation had nothing to do with any specific recipe or cooking style. Instead, in 1948 they invented the Speedee Service System. This introduced the idea of a production line to cooking.

The idea of pre-making aspects of a meal before the customer arrives isn’t unusual in the slightest today. But in the late 1940s most diners, restaurants and hamburger joints didn’t prepare any of the food until a customer had placed an order.

The Speedee Service System let diners walk right in and start eating hot, fresh food fast. This “fast food” was incredibly popular with customers. Plus, it also had a ton of financial benefits for the brothers.

The increased volumes let the brothers develop economies of scale, which reduced costs. Not only did the brothers save money, but so did their customers. Burgers were sold at prices up to 50% lower than nearby competitors.

Ray Kroc and National Expansion

The McDonald’s brothers had found great success locally. But in 1954 along came Ray Kroc, a businessman with a keen eye for marketing. Kroc was impressed by the Speedee Service System and saw untapped potential for national expansion.

Kroc and the McDonald brothers entered into a business partnership. The brothers kept their existing restaurants, while Kroc gained the rights to create McDonald’s restaurants outside of California and Arizona. He quickly got to work. By 1959, Kroc had over 100 McDonald’s restaurants up and running across the country.

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The McDonald Brothers Leave McDonald’s

In 1961, Kroc bought out the McDonald brothers completely and became the sole owner of the brand. While the official story on McDonald’s website paints the buy-out as a pretty simple business transaction, the truth was far more complicated.

Kroc ended up with all rights and royalties to the McDonald’s brand, leaving the brothers with no stake in or control over the business they’d started. He then opened a McDonald’s practically right across the street from the last restaurant owned by the brothers, essentially putting them out of business entirely. It was an aggressive move done almost certainly out of spite over the difficult negotiations.

Hamburger University Opens for Enrollment

With Kroc now completely in charge of the brand, expansion continued on with a new innovation — Hamburger University. This was a unique training program for franchise owners. The comprehensive training and support center helped create a uniform service style and customer experience across all McDonald’s restaurants. Plus, all graduate of the University received a degree in Hamburgerology!

While Kroc’s dealings with the brothers are certainly controversial, there’s no dispute that his creation of the McDonald’s franchise process was a remarkably successful innovation which is still used today.
As other fast food restaurants, such as Subway, are closing their doors due to an excess of stores, McDonald’s has enjoyed a relatively stable relationship with their franchise owners.

Ray told franchise owners they were “in business for yourself, but not by yourself.” He said there were three foundations to McDonald’s success. The first was the franchisees. The second was the suppliers. The third was the employees. He believed that all three aspects need to be strong and work together in order to achieve success.

Who Invented the Happy Meal?

In 1977, someone invented the Happy Meal. But exactly who that person is depends on which story you hear. The most popular story is the official one: Dick Brams is the Father of the Happy Meal.

Brams worked at McDonald’s as the regional advertising manager for the St. Louis area. He invented the Happy Meal simply because he wanted to make a meal just for kids. McDonald’s was already popular among families. Brams figured that kids would love the idea of having a meal just for them which was different than what their parents had.

The second version of the story is a bit more complicated. The other history of the McDonald’s Happy Meal actually starts in Guatemala in the mid-1970s. A restauranteur named Yolanda Fernandez de Cofino created small meals for parents to quickly and easily give to their children.

She packed a small bag with a hamburger, small fries and a small sundae. Parents could pick up the meal and take it to go. Basically, it was pre-packaged kid’s meal. And it was called the “Menu Ronald.”

Executives at McDonald’s heard of the Menu Ronald and decided to make their own version. To do so, they turned to Bob Bernstein, the CEO of Bernstein-Rein, a famous marketing agency. He set out developing an American version of the famous Guatemalan kid’s meal.

The First Happy Meal is Created

Bernstein created the basics for the Happy Meal fairly quickly. Like the Meal Ronald, the McDonald’s Kids Meal would consist of smaller meal portions. The meals would include a hamburger or cheeseburger, a small order of fries, a cookie and a small drink.

But he also needed to create a box. After all, a major selling point of McDonald’s was that the customer knew what to expect. Just like the food remained the same in each restaurant, the presentation needed to be consistent, too.

Bernstein found inspiration from his son. Every morning, his son would eat a bowl of kid’s cereal. While eating, he’d read the cereal box thoroughly. Because it was a cereal for kids, the box had a variety of illustrations, jokes, mazes and games. Bernstein decided the Happy Meals should emulate this general idea.

The basic design of the first Happy Mail was based on a lunch pail. The handles were made to resemble the restaurant’s iconic Golden Arches. Nationally-known children’s illustrators were recruited to design content for each of the box’s eight sides (even the bottom).

The first Happy Meal was introduced in October, 1977, in the Kansas City market. It included a 600-calorie burger, fries, cookies and a soft drink. Two years later, the Happy Meal was introduced nationwide. For the nationwide launch, McDonald’s included toys.

The first toys were based entirely around the McDonald’s brand. Early toys included the McDoodle stencil, the McWrist wallet, an ID bracelet or puzzle lock. While these early toys were popular, even bigger successes were just around the corner…

Photo by frankieleon via CC BY 2.0

McDonald Toys and Outside Licenses Prove a Winning Combo

In December 1979, McDonald’s first partnered with an outside brand and went where no Happy Meal had gone before. The first licensed Happy Meal was a promotional tie-up to Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Called the Star Trek Meal, it was marketed to both children and adults. Included with the meal was a comic book adaptation of the film as well as one toy. However, there were actually several possible toys available. Collectors bought multiple Happy Meals in order to complete the toy set.

The Star Trek Meal was an unexpected and massive success. McDonald’s began to seek out other collaborations. Over the years, Happy Meals have included toys related to practically every major franchise including Batman, Barbie, Disney, Furby, Hello Kitty, Star Wars, Teletubbies, Hot Wheels and more.

But the biggest Happy Meal toys were the Beanie Babies. These cuddly collectibles were already popular in the 1990s. By introducing unique Beanie Babies which were only available in Happy Meals, McDonald’s created a valuable sub-category in an already hot collectible market. Introduced in 1997, McDonald’s sold over 100 million Beanie Baby Happy Meals that first year alone.

McDonald’s recognized a good thing when they saw it. They kept the promotion – now called Teenie Beanie Babies – going for another three full years. They also brought it back in 2004 and 2009.

Fans of Happy Meal Toys Unite

McDonald’s originally created the Happy Meals as a way to appeal to families and children. But quite a few adults started to view Happy Meal toys as a fun collectible. After all, the toys were only available for a limited time. Plus, each licensed set usually contained a few different types of toys. Collecting became a fun game for an increasingly growing number of people throughout the 80s.

In 1990, the first meeting of the McDonald’s Collectors Club took place in a Fremont Holiday Inn ballroom in Ohio. Club founder Linda Gegorski had been collecting Happy Meal toys since the 80s, and even published two newsletters about fast food. She helped fellow fans gather to discuss their hobbies and trade their toys.

Over the years, her small club grew into an annual event with over 500 members. The entire scene was very active throughout the 90s and 00s. However, eventually the fandom died down. In 2016, the McDonald’s Collectors Club, now just 35 members strong, was officially disbanded. However, fans can still find a variety of forums and social media pages using the name McDonald’s Collectors Club, although they typically have no connection to the original organization.

The End of the Happy Meal?

The fast food landscape is much different today than it was throughout the 80s and 90s. Jack-in-the-Box has stopped offering toys. Taco Bell eliminated their kid’s menu entirely. And the McDonald’s Happy Meal is continuing to undergo significant changes.

Health concerns were a driving factor. In 2002, two teenagers sued McDonald’s, claiming the kid-friendly meals had caused their obesity. McDonald’s began to be increasingly recognized as not part of a healthy diet, especially for children.

In 2004, McDonald’s introduced their “Go Active” campaign. This special Happy Meal included a salad, exercise booklet and pedometer. Unfortunately, the public never really responded to the switch. The Go Active campaign was eventually abandoned.

However, some healthy changes did occur. In 2004, Happy Meals added the option of including low-fat milk and apple slices. Plus, Happy Meal advertising now only pictured Chicken Nuggets and apple slices instead of cheeseburgers and fries.

The Happy Meal suffered another setback in 2010. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to create new regulations for any meals which include a toy. All kid’s meals were now required to be under 600 total calories and must also contain either a fruit or vegetable. Four years later, the Center for Disease Control released a study which confirmed that kids in San Francisco were in better shape specifically because of the new regulations.

Photo by davidd via CC BY 2.0

Final Thoughts

Many restaurants, especially fast food locations, are moving away from kid’s meals and free toys. The most popular days of the Happy Meal are likely in the past. But for many fans, the Happy Meal toys are still fun collectibles. After all, most Happy Meal fans aren’t interested in the food, but the pursuit of the rarest, most valuable toys from years past.

Plus, McDonald’s has a long history of innovation. By introducing healthier food, they’re setting the Happy Meal up for a comeback. With a fascinating history and a promising future, the Happy Meal is an American classic which is likely to stick around in one form or another for quite a long time.

Brett Gordon

The brains behind The Toy Report. Having clocked tons of time in toys research and online resource development, today, Brett is dedicated to making The Toy Report a trusted space in the world of toy reviews and recommendations.