We now join this weeks episode of Happy Meal Treasure Hunters, already in progress:
"Standard procedure is to wait a few minutes before going inside the box because the high temperature of the surrounding grease-soaked meat and potato products, but I'm about to wet my pants with anticipation so we're just going in"
"Lower him down. Whoa Billy, watch out there. I think I see a stray pickle slice and one of those overcooked, pointy brown French fries to the left. That'll spoil your day. Good thing you're on the harness 'cause it looks like the grease has just about eaten through the bottom of the box. What's that? You got it? Alrighty bring him back up now, let's see what he's got."
"I think it's ...Yes, it IS! It's a Stay Puft Marshmallow Man pencil sharpener. Just look at it. I don't care for school, but this little beauty is going to have me writing multiple book reports just so I have an excuse to sharpen my pencil. Okay, get the plastic bag opened and let's start playing."
Happy Meals: Burger, fries and a toy. Although in order of kid importance the list reads: Toy, fries and maybe the burger, but just because Mom says you have to at least eat half of it if you want to go play on the slide. I can't tell you how many Happy Meals I consumed during my younger years (though most of them featured McNuggets in lieu of burgers), but I can tell you about the toys. And so it goes...
The earliest Happy Meal toys I remember holding in my stubby little hands were a series of cars from 1985. Now these were not the lame-o Hot Wheels they do nowadays (sorry Cosgrove), these were tiny automobiles of varying types driven by the McDonaldland characters themselves. According to the picture above there were four to choose from: Ronald McDonald Runabout, Big Mac Squad Car, Hamburglar Roadster and the Birdie The Early Bird Sun Cruiser.
I could have sworn there was a Grimace car, but maybe that was from a later series. Most clearly I remember racing Birdie in her pink convertible against the Hamburglar in his roadster. The Hamburglar's car was so light that it had a hard time driving in a straight line which meant Birdie usually came out victorious. Boy did they move though, with their built in pull back and go action those things would really fly across the dining room table. I think what kept them from breaking into a million pieces was that they were made by Ertl, famous for those sturdy metal dump trucks.
It seemed like back then McDonalds wasn't doing a lot of licensing because the next set of toys I got, while not featuring the McDonaldland characters, was still centered around the restaurants own creations. Yes, if you opened a Happy Meal box in 1987, you were very likely to find small plastic McDonalds menu items that changed into robots or robots that changed into McDonalds menu items depending on your point of view (kind of a chicken or the egg type deal).
The Changeables could be classified as Transformers meets Food Fighters (remember those?) but there was something that made them special in their own right, they were almost perfect re-creations of the items they represented. I can't tell you how many times I was tempted to take a sip from the chocolate milk shake cup (at least that was what I imagined was inside) or lift the mock-styrofoam Big Mac container for a quick snack. The transformation were simple and what was found inside could barely claim to be a robot, but for me each Changeable made it's individual food packaging into an iconic piece of Americana that to this day I consider the "classic" look for each item.
Before we move on to the much more popular movie and TV inspired toys, I do have one more fond memory of a classic happy meal prize that sprung from the mind of Ronald and the MickeyD's marketing department. The final McDonalds themed toys I remember getting excited about were inspired by the coolest piano playing, sunglass wearing, jazzy lounge singing, Half Moon-headed man to ever shill for a fast food restaurant. Ladies and gentleman, it's Mac Tonight.
When I was a kid I was in awe of Mac and his catchy lyrical hook, "At McDonalds, it's Mac Toniiiiiiiight!" So when he made the jump from commercials to toys, I was pretty excited. From a look at the toys I soon learned that when away from the piano Mac enjoyed motor sports that ranged from motorcycling and off-roading to jet skiing and testing experimental rocket planes. Also, according to the picture below, Mac has taken a page out of Sadaam Hussein's book and hired himself some doubles to trick any would-be assassins from Burger King.
I think my favorite was the tux and sport car combo that made it look like Mac could have starred in his own series of secret agent films. Can't you see it? Mac would constantly be battling the Hamburglar in movies with titles like "You Only Robble Twice" or "Robblefinger". Now there's a What if... article topic for ya!
Once McDonalds tapped into the licensed Happy Meal toy idea, however, the suits pretty much left Ronald and his McDonaldland pals in the dust and watched the money roll in. You can't really blame them, I mean what's going to get more kids begging for burgers: a beloved star of film and television or a bunch of deformed misfits whose every waking moment is spent in the pursuit of sodium-laced meat and spuds? You have chosen correctly. If I know my happy meal history the first licensing was done for Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979, but since I wasn't around at that point the first characters I experienced jumping from the TV screen to my Happy Meal were the Muppet Babies.
I was hopelessly devoted to this show. In fact most of my surviving childhood taped-off-TV-VHS tapes are made up of Muppet Babies episodes. Even as a kid I appreciated the quality of these figures, the likenesses were spot-on and each one had a nice heft to it (kid translation: Heavy = Quality). I only owned Kermit, Fozzy and Gonzo (my favorite) but that was fine because Kermit's skateboard and Gonzo's big wheel were the best vehicles anyway. The toys were about the same size at the Smurf figurines, so it was fun to have a Smurf/Muppet Babies crossover every once and a while. I just realized Gonzo was blue and so were the Smurfs! I wonder if Weirdos were an offshoot of the Smurf race that got banished from the village because they were hogging Smurfberries which led to a vengeful sneak attack in the middle of the night, decimating the once peaceful Smurf village.
Take that Papa Smurf! But getting back to the topic at hand, with Disney re-releasing their classic films in theaters for the new generation to enjoy, it was only a matter of time before toys of their beloved characters began showing up the Golden Arches.
The first Disney film toys I remember were inspired by that forest-burning classic, Bambi. I had been reading (well, had read to me) a giant Bambi storybook for years so I knew what it was all about, I didn't need no movie to tell me how to play with these figures. I got down to the local McDonalds lickety-split (we just don't do enough things lickety-split these days) and collected the whole series.
It always struck me as odd that they bothered to mold two different Thumpers but no Bambi's Mom. I mean, it could have had a feature where when you put it in cold water the figure color changed to black simulating her charred corpse-Think, Ronald, Think! What they really should have done was produce the two fighting deers that bash their heads together and had break away antler action-SWEET! But what we got was okay too. Like the Muppet Babies these figures were also pretty solid and didn't break easily. They were however given to melting, which is what ended up being their ultimate fate as I tortured Bambi and friends with makeshift bonfires in a pie tin...precious memories.
I'd have to say my favorite Happy Meal toy of all time received my neverending praise simply because it tread ground that expanded the reaches of my imagination. I distinctly remember the details of the night I obtained this treasured prize. Our usual McDonalds was a Sherlock Holmes themed restaurant, that is, it had faux Sherlock memorabilia in display cases and framed movie stills from silver screen incarnations of the famous detective. It also had a nice play place filed with Ronald McDonald and Apple Pie Tree statues, as well as ride-on creatures that looked like Hamburger Horses and Fry Guys. But by 1991 a new theme was all the rage: 50's Diners!
We had been driving by the Doo-Wop era MickeyD's for a few weeks and I was dying to go inside and check it out, but Mom was a little slow on the uptake (or maybe I wasn't whining loud enough). So I had to wait until one night after school when I was hanging out with my friend Erik playing with G.I. Joes in his waterfall Jacuzzi (a totally awesome playset!). Erik's Mom must have picked up on my telepathic messages about McDonalds and said she was going to take us out for dinner-YES!
As we walked in I remember the gleaming white of the ceramic countertops and floors blinded me while a model of a classic 50's car-hop diner in a glass case kept me mesmerized. It was quite a contrast to the natural wood paneling and dingy atmosphere of "McSherlocks". We soon got our Happy Meals and even though I was already overjoyed at having witnessed the inner sanctum of my McMystery, I was even more elated by what I pulled out of the brightly colored cardboard cube.
It was The Flash, my favorite super hero of the moment due to his recent TV show! Something was wrong, though. The Flash was looking a little tubby...and hairy. This wasn't the regular Scarlet Speedster I knew and loved, it was TAZ-FLASH!
Some creative genius had managed to merge the Looney Toons with classic, DC Comics heroes! Erik got Bat-Duck, which was Daffy mixed with Batman and by the packaging we could tell that Bugs Bunny had been spliced with Superman to create Superbugs and the previously unknown Petunia Pig had traded clothes with Wonder Woman to create Wonder Pig. They even came with individual comics to explain their new personas. It was awesome!
Although there are dozens more Happy Meal Toys I remember playing with over my lifetime, none shown brighter that those Super Looney Toons. Way to double your exposure Warner Brothers and thanks for the memories.