Few things are more iconic in American kid culture then 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? It's unlikely, however, that we realized exactly what we were consuming a 500-plus-calorie meal with a side of sugary soda. The pairing of toys and unhealthy food is precisely what led officials in Santa Clara County in California to ban toys in fast-food meals in an effort to curb childhood obesity. "[This ordinance] prevents restaurants from preying on children's love of toys to peddle high-calorie, high-fat, high-sodium kids' meals," county supervisor Ken Yeager told CNN. But while the Golden State county may have delivered a minor blow to the Golden Arches, it's unlikely that the appeal of the Happy Meal will dim anytime soon.
It started as a simple gimmick. Today, Dick Brams is known as the "father of the Happy Meal." But back in 1977, the McDonald's St. Louis regional advertising manager was just another marketer with a brilliantly simple idea: Why not create a meal just for kids? In 1979 McDonald's rolled out the U.S.'s first Happy Meal. It was circus-wagon-themed and came with the standard hamburger or cheeseburger option, as well as French fries, cookies, a soft drink and of course a toy. Upon opening their meal, kids got either a "McDoodler" stencil, a "McWrist" wallet, an ID bracelet, a puzzle lock, a spinning top or a McDonaldland-character eraser.
Though the culinary options have basically remained the same (Chicken McNuggets were added in 1983), the toys have changed nearly every week. A big moment for the meal came in 1987 when the first Disney Happy Meal debuted. Since then, Mickey Mouse, Cinderella, Aladdin, Simba, Nemo and all 101 dalmatians have made appearances. In addition to the Disney favorites, a great number of other toys and characters have found their way into the Happy Meal box: Transformers (which are now highly prized among collectors), Hello Kitty, Legos, Teletubbies and G.I. Joe. But none have experienced the insane popularity of Ty's Teenie Beanie Babies. McDonald's introduced a miniature version of the wildly popular stuffed animals in 1997, selling more than 100 million that year and further propelling a nationwide Beanie Baby craze. The intense popularity resulted in McDonald's continuing to offer Teenie Beanies annually through the year 2000, in 2004 (when they featured Beanies for original McDonald's stars Ronald, Birdie, Hamburglar and Grimace in honor of the Happy Meal's 25th anniversary) and as recently as 2009.
While a child's interest is naturally fleeting, some adults have stayed loyal. David Bracken is vice president of the McDonald's Collectors Club, a group celebrating its 20th anniversary at a convention April 30 and May 1 in Toledo, Ohio. Bracken, who lives near Pittsburgh, Pa., and started collecting in 1993, has amassed about 10,000 McDonald's collectibles, including some 4,500 Happy Meal toys. He said his interest took hold in the early '90s, when he would take his three kids to get the cheap, family-friendly meals. "I was just amazed at the amount of different toys they made," he said. "Eventually the kids got bored with the toys, and Dad was just the weird guy that still collected Happy Meal toys," Bracken says with a laugh. (His children are now 15, 18 and 21.)
Now his family room and basement are stuffed with Happy Meal knickknacks, a 22-in.-tall Ronald McDonald made out of Legos, an inflatable playpen (complete with golden arches) and a rare 1964 Archie McDonald bag (McDonald's produced only a few Archie merchandise items before being sued by a disc jockey of a similar name). He even owns one of the iconic arches a 9-ft.-by-4-ft. sign retired by a nearby McDonald's. It reads, "Billions and billions served." Bracken's wife refused to let him hang it in the family room. His collection became so well known that it elicited a visit from the head clown himself: to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Happy Meal in June 2009, Ronald visited Bracken's house to check out the memorabilia and deliver a Happy Mealshaped cake. The clown's gesture did not go unnoticed. "He's got to travel all over the world, so for him to stop in my house is pretty neat," Bracken told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review at the time.
But while its toys have long been cherished, the Happy Meal's food choices are often criticized. To its credit, McDonald's introduced jugs of 1% milk, apple slices with low-fat caramel dip and juice boxes in the early 2000s. A four-piece Chicken McNuggets meal with apple slices, caramel dip and a box of apple juice has 380 calories, 12 g of fat and 470 mg of sodium. Then there's the cheeseburger meal with a small bag of fries and 1% chocolate milk, which weighs in at 700 calories, 27 g of fat and 1,060 mg of sodium. The Santa Clara County measure bans restaurants from including toys in meal packages with more than 485 calories or 600 mg of sodium, as well as with meals that derive more than 35% of their total calories from fat or 10% from added sugar. If the fast-food giant wants to continue serving toys with their kid meals around Santa Clara, it's going to have to make some additional menu changes. But even with the measure, the Happy Meal is unlikely to fade from prominence. After all, "it's part of America," says Bracken. "Every family knows McDonald's, and every kid at one time or another has said to their parents, 'Hey, can we go to McDonald's for a Happy Meal?' "