Kid’s meals: they make childhood diabetes and obesity fun!
Including a cheap, Chinese-made trinket in a Happy Meal was a brilliant stroke by McDonald’s in 1979 (no pun intended). Not only did the ploy have kids begging their parents to take them to the restaurant that added a “free” toy, but McD’s also cleverly made each prize one of a set. Obsessive kids would ask for repeat trips to make sure they got every toy in the limited series.
Having the toys be some sort of promotional tie-in with an already-popular show, movie, or toy line only compounded this compulsive desire. The association with a trendy franchise even had the potential to rope in adults who felt the need to collect low-quality trinkets targeted at children.
Not all of the toy series are complete crap, though. Some legitimately exude quality, ingenious design, or perhaps just enough charm and nostalgia to get people in the door. It’s also no secret that nerds are amongst the collecting-est people around, and they have less scruples when it comes to their favorite intellectual properties.
In honor of dweebs, nerds, and geeks who order off the kids’ menu, or who scour eBay for junk that belongs in yard-sale bargain bins, here are some of the coolest and most tantalizing kid’s meal toys in history…
Mario Kart Wii Racers – Kentucky Fried Chicken 2008
Sometimes, America gets the short end of the stick when it comes to cool toys. There’s no telling why, but these racers were exclusive to Mexico’s KFC franchises, and had a mildly awesome commercial to boot.
Each toy came with a button that attached to the back and launched the spring-loaded racers. Sure, you had to put stickers on them yourself to make the vehicles even look like actual karts, but they included Yoshi in the Super Blooper! Adorbs!
Kirby, Right Back at Ya! Toys – Wendy’s 2003
Kirby may not get as much love as other Nintendo mascots, but he did get his own Saturday morning TV show. To celebrate it’s release, Wendy offered promotional toys with their kids’ meals such as a Kirby gliding on a star, or a pink bouncy ball with the personable puff’s image emblazoned on it.
The pièce de résistance was a Kirby in a chef hat that acted like a Magic 8-Ball. Pushing him down would cause a plastic part with text on it to spin, and it would reveal a response to any query you could level at it. Just don’t depend on using this one for help with your retirement plan.
X-Men Action Figurine Combo Packs – Hardees 1995
Technically not the fun meal prize, these toys were available to purchase with any combo for an additional 99 cents. Each contained two mutant figurines, one from the X-Men and one from the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.
While there were only four packs total in this series, the inclusion of two characters each made it far more interesting. Also, despite not being pose-able, each X-Men figure was fairly detailed and had an accurate color scheme. The mutant villains were also decent, but none were memorable other than a Blob figure that looked like a spooked Garbage Pail kids reject.
Simpsons Creepy Classics Figurines – Burger King 2002
These toys combined two loves of nerdy adults everywhere: The Simpsons and Universal’s classic horror cycle. Each figurine was sculpted as a transformation of a Springfield resident into a re-imagined iconic movie monster. The plastic quality was so-so, but the designs were creative and the coloring was spot-on.
Included with the figures was also a base that matched the theme of the creature and that also had a sliding comic.
Super Mario Bros. 3 Toys – McDonald’s 1989
I’ll be the first to admit that these toys look laughably bad in retrospect. Mario looks like he’s had a bit too much pasta, and Luigi appears to be bashfully farting up an entire cloud. They actually nailed the goomba design, but he usually flips on his back instead of a full somersault. Don’t even get me talking about the koopa that’s supposed to hop around, but usually just experiences small seizures.
I didn’t appreciate these toys when I was a toddler because they were of excellent quality, though, but because they were the first recognition by a mega-corporation of how awesome video games were. Even the commercial had all the requisite Mario 3 sound effects.
Having a Mario toy (outside of the stiff statuettes being made) was a dream come true for all the times I had to play with something that wasn’t a Nintendo. I never actually owned one of these personally, but the local day care center had a slew of them and we would always fight over who got to play with what. That is why they remain, to this day, my most nostalgic reminder of Mario-mania from back in my childhood.
Super Tunes – McDonald’s 1992
These toys were everything one could ever want in a Happy Meal prize. They were well-made, fun to play with, and had no less than two awesome tie-in franchises.
Sure, the superheros weren’t 100% licensed by DC, but Warner Bros. owned most of the movie rights anyways. Thus, they probably weren’t afraid of getting sued for “borrowing” the color scheme and costume traits of some of the most recognizable superheros of all time.
Each of the four prizes contained a Looney Tunes plastic figurine that, while non-poseable, could be squeezed and bent without breaking. Every character had a harder plastic outfit as a shell that snapped together around the figure. Squeezing the arms or legs would cause the character to “bust” out of his or her costume.
The soft plastics, playful sculpts, and vibrant palettes of these figures made them a favorite toy for my siblings and I. Even though we had plenty of better, more-expensive toys to play with, the appealing designs had us coming back each time. We would enact superhero adventures for hours, complete with dramatic costume changes. I also got to practice my Bugs Bunny, Taz, and Daffy voices in their various superhero personas.
Just talking about it makes me want to go to eBay right now. Must… resist…
Pokémon Collectibles – Burger King 1999
This toy series received world-wide attention for two reasons. For game-obsessed kids like me, it was the mind-blowing variety of Pokémon toys that looked just like characters from the games and cartoons. For everyone else in the world, it was because they were the only kid’s meal toys that straight-up murdered an infant.
Each Pokémon toy came in its own Pokéball container that was made of two plastic halves. When several infant children were reported to have gotten the balls stuck upon their nose and mouth, killing two, Burger King and their toy manufacturer issued one of the largest and most expensive toy recalls in history.
The fact that the recall was so immense was a testament to how popular and widespread these awesome toys were. How’s that for a tasteful segue?
To celebrate the US release of Pokémon: The First Movie, Burger King issued no less than fifty-seven different toys with a variety of functions. Each came in their own aforementioned, baby-smothering red and white Pokéballs and also included a unique Pokémon trading card for use in the best-selling card game. Also sold at the time were six special Pokémon cards with a 23 karat gold plate and a shiny, non-murderous, reflective Pokéball.
The plushes and water squirters were sought-after by many of my friends, but the most desirable ones to me were the keychains. Each was an adorable miniature Pokémon that was higher-quality than expected, accurate, and something I would proudly place upon any bookbag without fear of being thought a trashy cheapskate.
During the time of the recall, Burger King initiated a million-dollar TV ad campaign in addition to warnings and flyers placed on tray mats and around the restaurants. These warnings urged customers to return the plastic Pokéballs in exchange for a free small fry. Patrons were permitted to keep the Pokémon toys stored within them.
Despite these efforts, Burger King recovered less than half of the estimated 25 million containers released to the public. They claim that 60% of surveyed customers reported that they threw away the containers themselves, which is considered a “successful” recall.
What Burger King seemed to underestimate was the desire for deceitful trainers to keep their captive Pokémon inside their tiny homes, babies be damned.
Jarrod Lipshy is a BA English graduate and freelance content writer. He collects old video games and resists the urge to collect crappy toys.