The Meal of Happy

Delicious, not the least bit nutritious and it comes with a toy! A look at the Happy Meal.
June 16, 2008
Happy Meal.

Now there is some accurate advertising if ever I heard it. A meal that promises to make you happy and then does just that.

(It also makes you fat, but that's a discussion for another time.)

If you grew up in the United States, it's a fair bet that you had quite a few McDonald's Happy Meals in your tenure as a child and as a result, many, many Happy Meal toys probably lurked around your bedroom, waiting to stab your parents in the feet when they inexplicably slithered out from under your bed--where you had most likely stuffed them when you'd been told to clean your room.

Or maybe it was just my toys that lay in ambush for my mom…my bedroom was booby trapped like that.

I digress.

The Happy Meal is, in my opinion, one of the best things to come out of America for children in the history of this great nation. You can argue the point if you like--I certainly won't stop you--but at least give me the chance to explain why I believe the Happy Meal is such a fabulous thing, nutritional issues not withstanding.

McDonald's answer to the Transformers. Wonder why it failed?

For almost five years as a teenager, I worked off and on in a little used toy store in my home town. That's right: I lucked out by being so charismatic I talked my way into a job where I got to play with toys all day. I worked there right up until the place closed, almost twenty years after it first opened.

The way it worked was simple. People would bring in their gently used toys that their kids no longer wanted, sell them to us and then we'd clean 'em up, fix or replace any parts that were missing and resell them. It was recycling at its finest.

People often brought in McDonald's toys and one of my duties--other than keeping the shop spic and span, counting puzzle pieces and making sure that Donatello and Michelangelo didn't get their weapons mixed up--was to take home boxes and boxes of vintage Happy Meal toys and sort them into the sets in which they'd first been released. With a published guide of all the toys McDonald's had ever released up until that particular year, I spent hours and hours toiling away with countless Ziploc baggies of all sizes, putting Cabbage Patch Kids here and Hot Wheels over there.

Imagine sorting a pile of toys like that every week. What a job.

Based on that experience, you could say I'm a bit of an expert on Happy Meal toys.

What I noticed in those endless hours was the pleasant nostalgic feeling I got whenever I laid my hands on one of the toys I'd had when I was a kid. Little disposable toys that no adult would look at twice, like plastic pieces of my history, shot me back to being six or seven years old in an instant. When you're a child, your idea of what's important and what isn't differs greatly from the viewpoint of an adult. That's one of the magical things about being a kid: even cheap, mass manufactured pieces of plastic can be something worth treasuring.

Even if you grew up poor, there's a very good chance that you had at least a handful of Happy Meal toys. My family's annual income was about three thousand dollars below the USA poverty threshold and I can still remember having a small basket of them that were played with on a regular basis and very, very special to me.

Sure, some of the richer kids I knew had bigger, better toys, but it was the one common denominator and equalizer amongst children. Everyone had Happy Meal toys. Everyone could relate.
And, in a post Happy Meal world, adults can now remember having them with a fondness that other adults can understand as well.

Happy Meals instill the value of the collector's spirit in each subsequent generation, I think, which is one of the reasons I still appreciate them. My own action figure collection was kicked off by a Batgirl figure that was released when I was a kid--a figure I still own.

Cut to over a decade later and my apartment would be rather bare if not for that little 'disposable' piece of McDonald's history.

It's buried on the shelf set aside for Batman's sidekicks (yes, I have a shelf set aside just for them--judge not that which you cannot understand), but it's there. Until that point, the idea that my favorite superhero's universe might exist in the world of toys never even occurred to me.

Another plus to Happy Meals is that, in some instances, they introduce a foreign franchise to a kid in such a way that they want to know what their toy happens to be about. As an example, one of the earliest licensed franchises that was tied to the Happy Meal was Star Trek.

How many kids put together that cardboard Enterprise and then got into Star Trek as a result?

I can personally attest to the fact that my very first real exposure to Marvel Comics--beyond a very general knowledge that Spider-Man existed--was thanks to the Marvel Superheroes Happy Meal.

I remember wanting that Storm so badly.

Happy Meals are now a part of the general consciousness, garnering even pop culture references.

Colonel Jack O'Neill of Stargate: SG-1: "Three fries short of a Happy Meal whacko!"

You, my readers, must remember some specific Happy Meal craze that you collected, or a specific toy that you remember with an inordinate amount of nostalgia. Maybe even something that was the source--the very root--of something you love now that you‘re all grown up. Maybe it helped to expand your affection for a franchise that you already liked. What was it?

If you can think of even one thing, then it should be apparent that Happy Meals are so much more than another example of the quick-and-disposable way of life that America seems to be famous for. The toys may not last, but their impact--no matter how small--does.

So the next time you're lamenting your kid's/nephew's/niece's/what-have-you's Happy Meal toy addiction and the little bugger's bizarre ability to turn up shoved under you car seat, stuffed under the sofa cushions or lurking just out of sight in an attempt to trip you and make you fall to your doom, try and remember that those toys are to that kid what yours were to you.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a hankering for an artery clogging burger and fries in a smiling cardboard box.

BiteMeTechie is a professional freelance writer, aspiring comic book author, collector of toys-you-wish-you-owned and Batman aficionado. When not writing articles for places like RetroJunk and Suite101, she ponders just what McDonald's chicken nuggets were made of before they decided to make them from %100 white meat and you can probably find her hanging around the nearest bookshop posing such questions to passers-by on her quest for knowledge.
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