As I'm sure many of you know, this year marks the 40th Anniversary of Happy Meal boxes and toys. Happy Meals were introduced in June of 1979. Before June of 1979, mainly McDonaldland merchandise was available for children at McDonald's. Burger King was the best fast-food chain in the 1970s with the collectible glasses and very early 1980s with the Star Wars premium posters and cups. The years 1978 to 1989 were the formative years for my generation, Generation XY, so the birth of Happy Meals and McDonaldLand Fun Times Magazine leaflets were by far one of the most important events to Xennials. I will be giving a good and thorough blow-by-blow of my favorite Happy Meal toys from the years 1979 to 1989.
Here we go!
Star Trek The Motion Picture Toys
Time of Release: Late in December 1979 to February of 1980
For those of you who were not alive, the hit motion picture Star Wars had changed everything for the world of movies when it released in 1977. Star Wars mania had hit in the summer of 1977 and lasted until the fall of 1978 when the electronic game Simon and Speak and Spell reached toy shelves in the United States. The 1977 film Star Wars was the perfect mixture of 50s science fiction and the new style of movie-making in the 1970s. Long story short, Star Wars was to Generation X what the 1989 film Batman was to my generation, Generation XY. There were many Star Wars copycat films in the period immediately after 1977, the very early 1980s, to about 1985 or so. The greatest answer to Star Wars at the turn of the 1980s was Star Trek The Motion Picture (60s nostalgia was brand new at the time).
In 1979, Happy Meal toys were known as prizes and there were five prizes for the Star Trek Meal (Star Trek themed Happy Meal, a brilliant idea). There were Star Trek Rings, the Star Trek Starfleet Game, Star Trek Double Glitter Iron-On Sheets, Star Trek Bracelet, and the Star Trek Video Communicator (one of the coolest Happy Meal toys of all time). This set of Happy Meal toys were the very best Happy Meal toys of 1979 and they were very '80s.
Fun Fact: These are the only Star Trek Happy Meal toys in existence. Loose and complete Star Trek prizes are hard to find.
Spaceship Happy Meal Boxes
Time of Release: Late 1981/Early 1982
All things space was a big deal for the last time during Ronald Reagan's first term as President. After mostly flat second and third years, McDonald's released four different colored spaceship boxes. All spaceship boxes each came with a sticker sheet featuring McDonaldland characters behind the spaceship windows and other stickers with stars, the McDonald's logo, and the USA on them. Of course, you could pop off the top of each spaceship box to reveal what came in your hamburger or cheeseburger Happy Meal. The insides of the spaceships had to be washed out at home because of the grease from the fries that came with the Happy Meal.
Fun Fact: The Spaceship Happy Meal Boxes were the largest early Happy Meal toys. They paved the way for the first-ever Halloween Pails in October of 1986.
E.T. Extra Terrestrial Posters
Time of Release: June 1982
The early 1980s were different from how we view them today. Monday night football, chapter books about space adventures, and the mainstream 50s nostalgia movement were everything to children and teens at the time. Four different hand-drawn posters with the then-new Steven Spielberg alien, E.T., was enough to hold children of the 1980s over. E.T. was one of my favorite Reagan '80s movies. Each poster had a different memorable scene from the movie. Being the Xennial I am, I'm inclined to say that the poster with the illustration of the then-new 80s electronic toy, the Speak and Spell, on it was my favorite out of them all. The E.T. poster with the glowing finger and chest was the most sought after poster at the time, nonetheless. Today, all four posters are rare. I don't think Millennials and Generation Z even know of these. 'Relevant at the time, not today' best describes these.
Fun fact: A McDonald's themed version of E.T., Mac and Me, came to theaters on August 18th of 1988. E.T. was sold on VHS for the first time in late 1988.
McDonald's Circus Happy Meal
Time of Release: Early to Mid 1983
Anyone who knows anything about the actual 1980s could tell you that the 1980s were the time period of the TV special “Circus of the Stars”. Well, McDonald's took the McDonaldland characters (Birdie made her debut shortly before this promotion) and placed them in a circus for this line of Happy Meal toys. There were three toys in all (Grimace Strong Gong, Acrobatic Ronald, and French Fry Faller). For this set, you would put every individual flexible same colored toy together by snapping the pieces on to other ones for a miniature circus in your bedroom. It was neat for the time, but these would be mighty dated in 1989.
Fun Fact: The McDonald's Circus Happy Meal toys are some of the rarest Happy Meal toys in history.
Time of Release: Early 1984
1984 was the year of Smurf-mania and McDonald's could not get a hold of the creator Peyo for the popular 60s cartoon characters until 1985 for a free cup with a meal deal, so children of the 1980s were left with the next best thing, Astrosniks. Astrosniks (Niks) was what you get when you put fictional space aliens into a blender with a Smurf. The Astrosniks was invented in 1975 by a German company Bullyland and they were new to the US market around 1983 when the new Hanna-Barbera The Smurfs cartoon was starting to take off. There were seven Happy Meal toys (A Racing Sled Nik, Drill Nik, Perfido Man [Non-Nik], Commander Nik, Copter Nik, Rotobackpack Nik, and a Skiing Nik). From my recollection, these were the first big PVCs (Polyvinyl Chloride) to come into a fast-food restaurant meal. The Calfornia Raisins would make my generation forget about these in another three years, but Astrosniks still hold up as some of the most durable Happy Meal toys of the 1980s.
Fun Fact: Each Astrosniks PVC had the McDonald's arch on it.
St. Louis, MO Transformers Figurine or My Little Pony Charm Test Run Happy Meal Toys
Time of Release: Early 1985
Eureka! Finally, I get to discuss one of my top five Happy Meal toy promotions. This was the perfect Happy Meal toy set for children of the 1980s in the mid-1980s. It gave boys a shot at owning any Transformers mini-bot that they might have wanted to go alongside their Generation 1 Optimus Prime action figures. The G1 Transformers figurines were a notch below even the G1 Transformers Action Masters from late 1990, but the Happy Meal boxes and inserts that came with the four characters (Bumblebee, Gears, Cliffjumper, and Brawn) made up for that. The four non-poseable Transformers figurines came in six different colors. My Little Pony Charms, on the other hand, could not clip to a charm necklace for girls but girls could clip one to their back pocket. There were six My Little Pony Charms (Blossom, Minty, Snuzzle, Blue Belle, Cotton Candy, and Butterscotch). A part of me wishes the My Little Pony Charms were My Little Pony Combs that could be used to comb an actual My Little Pony doll, but their idea was more in tune with the latest trend of the mid-80s, 24-inch charm necklaces. The Transformers figurines look as if they could come out of 1982, but I’ll take them over nothing.
Fun Fact: These Transformers figurines and My Little Pony Charms mark the debut of Transformers and My Little Pony toys in Happy Meals and kids meals, period. Go-Bots would come to Wendy’s Kids Meal one year later, but the G1 Transformers figurines from Hasbro are the most sought after mid-80s transformable robot series toys on the black market today.
An American Tail Storybooks
Time of Release: December 1986
And so begins...the mid to late 80s war between Disney movies and Don Bluth films. From 1986 to 1989, McDonald's would market gift certificates, Happy Meal items, ornaments, and cups featuring characters from a Don Bluth picture and Disney films similar to that particular Don Bluth picture. The An American Tail tie-in in December of 1986 was definitely the start of it all. Going to be honest here; I found the actual An American Tail and even An American Tail Fievel Goes West storybooks to be better thought out than the An American Tail storybooks that came in the Happy Meals in 1986. The An American Tail Happy Meal storybooks had stock images from the films inside of them and a nice hand-drawn cover image. There were four storybooks in the promotion (Tony and Fievel, Fievel's Friends, Fievel and Tiger, and Fievel's Boat Trip). I remember being more impressed by the box art for the Happy Meal box than the storybooks at the time. I probably felt that the An American Tail storybooks should have been sold with a record like the Hardee's Gremlin Adventures (16-Page Storybook and Read-Along Record). Then again, An American Tail was Don Bluth's standout film, whereas Steven Spielberg was the biggest director, writer, and executive producer of the 1980s.
Fun Facts: The An American Tail storybook, gift certificates, and ornaments were not the final An American Tail products sold through McDonald's. An exclusive copy of the An American Tail Fievel Goes West VHS was $5.99 for the Holiday Film Fest promotion.
Storybooks for the classic Disney movies like Dumbo, The Sword in the Stone, Cindarella, and The Lady and the Tramp were in Happy Meals one year later as part of the new Disney and McDonald's partnership. The first McDonald's and Disney partnership lasted from 1987 to mid-1991. The second Disney and McDonald's was a brief stint in 1993 for the film re-release of Snow White and the Seven Drawfs. Lastly, the third McDonald's and Disney partnership has been going on from 1994 to today.
The Real Ghostbusters School Supplies
Time of Release: September of 1987
It's 1987, the first year of the late 1980s, and 8 years old I am trying to figure out which Ghostbusters came first. Is it The Ghost Busters with the F-Troop in it(Filmation's Ghostbusters) or The Real Ghostbusters? I was not allowed to see the 1984 Ghostbusters film, but the year 1987 was when you could not go anywhere without seeing the Ghostbusters logo. This Happy Meal promotion and the then-new Kenner toys made it safe for me to watch the Saturday morning and syndicated animated series in '87. This Happy Meal set could have been thought of by Egon Spengler (the late and great Harold Ramis). It was brilliant and radical at the same time. There were 5 toys based on the hit 1984 Columbia Pictures movie and 1986 animated series (A Mr. Stay-Puft pencil sharpener, Containment Chamber [a clear pencil pouch with a small ghost design], The Real Ghostbusters pencil with Slimer and Fire House topper, A Mr. Stay-Puft note pad and “no ghost” logo eraser, A Mr. Stay-Puft note pad and The Real Ghostbusters 6″ ruler). I love the Mr. Stay-Puft pencil sharpener, the pencil with the Slimer and Fire House topper, and the Mr. Stay-Puft note pad with the 6″ ruler featuring all four Ghostbusters the most out of them all. The Happy Meal boxes with the four distinct New York City locations like the Firehouse (Headquarters), Public Library, Museum, and Schoolhouse [as they were referred to as, then] were a nice touch as well. I wish there had been more The Real Ghostbusters Happy Meal toys in the late 80s, but Hardee's took on the franchise for the 1989 movie Ghostbusters 2.
Fun Facts: Like with Jim Henson's Muppet Babies, there were two Happy Meal promotions for The Real Ghostbusters. The first one in '87 was a US release, the second one in 1992 was a non-US release. The second Real Ghostbusters set was for The Real Ghostbusters collectors and bike riders. There was a Slimer Horn, Ecto Siren, Egon Spinner, P.K.E. Water Bottle and Slimer Squirter as the U3 (Under 3 toy). I favor the second set over the first set.
The Mr. Stay-Puft pencil sharpener was one of the few (if not the only) Mr. Stay-Puft items in history to have his hands on its stomach and not in the air.
The Second Ducktales Set
Time of Release: September of 1988
In the tail end of the mid-80s into the late 1980s, there was a resurgence of cartoons that promoted teamwork. There were toons like The Real Ghostbusters, Inhumanoids, Bionic Six, Centurions, Fraggle Rock The Animated Series, and Disney's Ducktales. Ducktales were brought back from the 40s through the then-new 60s revival movement and McDonald's 'missed the boat' with Disney's Gummi Bears from 1985, so Disney's Ducktales was 'pumped up' by McDonald's throughout the year 1988. The adventure toys from early 1988 were products of their time, but they did not catch my interests like The Real Ghostbusters, Berenstain Bears, and Muppet Babies collectibles from the year before. The second set of Ducktales toys had something for Disney fans, Top Gun fans, California fans, Huey Lewis and the News fans, and Power Cycle lovers. There were four toys (Launchpad in an orange airplane, Scrooge McDuck in a red car, Webby on modern 80s tricycle, and Huey, Dewey, and Louie on a Jetski[with wheels and no wheels]) and an under 3 toy of Huey skating. Outside of Scrooge McDuck, the colors (yellow, green, red, blue, pastel pink, and hot pink) and styles (leather brown bomber jackets) of the other characters were very relevant at the time. These felt light in your hands whenever you held them and there was lots of warmth in the paint applications and expressions on the faces of the characters. You could exchange the Webby figurine for Scrooge McDuck and have Webby driving an expensive red car as Scrooge McDuck 'felt young again' on the Power Cycle and act out the 1988 Fred Savage film Vice Versa with the two Ducktales characters. It should come as no surprise that these toys are on most people's favorite Happy Meal toys from the past lists.
Fun Fact: These toys were reissued for an Australian release in November of 1990, three months after Ducktales the Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp was in theaters in the US. The commercial featured a gentleman performing the Ducktales theme song with a saxophone [so early 90s].
Disney's The Little Mermaid
Time of Release: November to December of 1989
November 10th of 1989! The long haul, also known as the 1980s, was just about behind us as we were swimming closer towards the year 1990. At the time, the Disney film re-releases for Oliver and Company and Bambi were not swaying my generation away from Don Bluth films like An American Tail and The Land Before Time in late 1988. In consequence, Disney had to put the final nail in the coffin for their competition — enter Disney's The Little Mermaid. Disney's The Little Mermaid was Star Wars for girls. There was a young hopeful (Ariel the mermaid), a royal figure (Prince Eric), a villain dressed in black (Ursula), and the lovable sidekicks (Flounder and Sebastian). Disney's The Little Mermaid was responsible for so many 90s things like the label 90s Girl, Mermaidmania in the early 90s, and the hermit crab necklace trend in 1991. Disney's The Little Mermaid was perfectly a product of the 1980s, but a much bigger deal in the early to mid-1990s.
There were four toys (Ariel holding a seahorse, Squirtable Flounder, Suction Cup Backed Ursula [how 1989 of McDonald's], and Eric holding Sebastian in his hand on the yellow boat). Of course, they were bath toys. Prince Eric was a small removable PVC that was out of scale with Ariel. Ariel would rock the yellow boat if you placed her in the upper hull of the boat on the water of a bathtub or sink. You could get away with Ariel being in the yellow boat if you placed both Happy Meal toys against a wall on a shelf. I guess you could have placed Flounder on top of the heads of Ariel and Prince Eric. The yellow boat was not the Millennial Falcon, but you could make it the ultimate battleship against Ursula if you worked the toys correctly.
Wendy's All Dogs go to Heaven figures and Pizza Hut's The Land Before Time puppets were a larger improvement for Don Bluth fans than the An American Tail storybooks from 1986, but those were not as memorable or as iconic for kids meal toy lovers like the Disney's The Little Mermaid Happy Meal toys from 1989. Disney's The Little Mermaid toys, also, were some of the earliest Happy Meal toys to come in baggies with print on them that you either had to cut open with scissors or use your teeth to rip open. In hindsight, 80s Happy Meal toys were finally starting to look like 90s Happy Meal toys in 1989. Unfortunately for children of the 80s, 80s sets like The Little Mermaid and 90s sets like Super Mario Brothers 3 were restricted to four toys. People who wanted Scuttle the Seagull, Max the Dog, King Triton, and Glut the Shark for The Little Mermaid Happy Meal set were left out. Let's not even get into the massive letdown that was the Super Mario Brothers 3 Happy Meal set. With that said, many girls in the very late 80s preferred these Happy Meal toys to the forgettable Applause PVCs of only Ariel from 1989. In some ways, the Happy Meal toys to Disney's The Little Mermaid were below the Tyco The Little Mermaid PVC sets at the time.
This Happy Meal set makes me wish there was something like this done for the original Star Wars movies from 1977 to 1983. The Happy Meal toys for Disney's The Little Mermaid were every bit as 'epic' as the movie was. I cannot wait to see what Disney and McDonald's have planned for the live-action The Little Mermaid motion picture in the 2020s. It would be 'wicked' to see the tradition of Ariel Happy Meal toys with the seahorse in her hand continued into the 21st Century. For those of you who do not know, the 1989 Ariel holding the seahorse Happy Meal toy was slightly remodeled in 1997 for the Disney film re-release of The Little Mermaid. I was 18 years old at the time, so I could not grab a Flounder as I could at 10 years old in late 1989. Say what you will, but to this day, I choose to believe that Flounder sported a mohawk [totally '80s and very early 90s].
Fun Facts: The Little Mermaid was one of the Disney Renaissance franchises to get treatment from both McDonald's and Burger King. The others were Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pochahontas, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
These toys were reissued in 1990 for a UK release.
The Little Mermaid set produced for the 1997 film re-release was larger and consisted of every character [including a Sebastian not molded into Prince Eric's hand] except for King Triton. A rare gold Treasure Chest set was made for Happy Meal toy collectors [a first that happened in the late 1990s].
These bath toys are some of the most memorable Happy Meal toys in all of history so far. One of the first sets that spring to mind whenever 80s Happy Meal toys are brought up in discussions online or in the workplace.
The Little Mermaid toys were some of the final Happy Meal toys that late Xennials born between 1984 and 1986 got to collect. With the exception of Prince Eric in the yellow boat, the other toys were suitable for children ages 3 and under. There was not a U3 toy for this set.
Top 5 Happy Meal Landmarks from The 1980s
1. Halloween Pails (1986)
2. McNugget Buddies (1988)
3. LEGO Toys (1984)
4. Food Changeables (1988)
5. Little Golden Books (1982)
(I cannot find the commercial for these)
1978, like the years before, was the last year "we had it our way" at Burger King. The rest of the 80s to early and mid-90s would belong to McDonald's with the Happy Meals, McDonaldland Fun Times Magazine, Onion Nuggets [failed test run], Chicken McNuggets, McDLT, Gift Certificates featuring hit new movie characters, Movie tie-in Collector Cups, McKids clothing line, and McPizza. After almost a full-time period of losing consumers, Burger King would come back fiercer and more savage than ever before in the 1990s (just in time for the new 1970s revival that started in 1989). I plan on discussing the Happy Meal versus Burger King Kids Club further in my next article (My Favorite Happy Meal Toys from 1990 to 1998). Like with everything, McDonald's Happy Meal toys were great at the beginning of its run in the 20th Century and a little tiresome towards the end of the 20th Century. The 80s Happy Meal toys, for me and many other children of the 80s, were the most remarkable and unique collectibles out of everything released thus far for the Happy Meal prizes. When you think about it, McDonald's has come a long way from 1979 when a hamburger or cheeseburger, fries, McDonaldland cookies, a soft drink, and an eraser prize [it the period of the 80s that immediately followed the 70s] came in a Happy Meal. I hope every child in the rest of the 21st Century gets to continue experiencing what children of the 1980s first did.
I deeply apologize for the lack of images. The Image Upload feature has not been working for me. I will re-submit this article with the images of the Happy Meal toys in time.
Well, that is all for me! I want to hear in week 1, week 2, week 3, or week 4 [Happy Meal joke] from you what your favorite Happy Meal toys from the entire 1980s were. It could be a prototype Happy Meal box from 1978 and 1979 if you please.
I'm off like a Fast Mac pullback! Remember those? The discontinued McDonaldLand character Mayor McCheese rode in a police car. There were four of them made in 1985 (Ronald McDonald Fast Mac, Hamburgular Fast Mac, Birdie Fast Mac, and Mayor McCheese Fast Mac). I thought that would bring a smile to your faces. Until next time, Retro Junkers!