The introduction of McDonald’s Happy Meals for adults has people feeling all kinds of nostalgia for their youth.
This marketing move has inspired fans to start thinking about the wonder of a drive-thru treat and how it delighted them back in the day. Happy Meals, which debuted in 1979, remain one of the most successful fast food menu additions of all time because they appealed to both the children eager for a treat and parents who just wanted their tiny tots to eat dinner.
McDonald’s came under fire for targeting young people with unhealthy fast food. But that wasn’t enough to stop the mighty Happy Meal, which is still offered to this day.
Over the years, Happy Meal treats have ranged from the collectible to the truly bizarre. Here are some of the best and worst options.
Worst: E.T. Poster
A lot of the most hated prizes on the list have something in common: they aren’t actually toys. While it’s true that Spielberg’s 1982 sci-fi classic “E.T.” was a hit with audiences of all ages, the fact remains that getting a poster alongside your burger and fries was a bit of a letdown. Not to mention the fact that a lot of the time, the paper got ruined by grease before it could even get unpackaged.
Best: Muppet Babies Cars
McDonald’s did it best when they didn’t overthink their Happy Meal additions. The Muppet Babies toy series included baby versions of popular characters Kermit, Gonzo, Fozzie, and Piggy in little cars with functioning wheels.
Kids were inspired to collect all four because when they did, the Muppets could connect together to form a cute train. It all added up to a big win that customers loved.
Worst: Halloween Buckets
Is there anything worse than a practical toy? While parents may have loved the collectible buckets that came with Happy Meals around Halloween time, kids were less than thrilled to receive something so utilitarian.
Despite Halloween buckets being notorious on the “worst of” lists, McDonald’s recently announced that this item would be returning in time for the 2022 trick-or-treat season.
Best: McDinos Changeables
Kids love transformers because they’re the original fidget toys, endlessly morphing between two totally different things. The fast food behemoth partnered with the “Transformers” franchise in 1990 to create these collectible characters that changed into fast food items and dinosaurs. Maybe that’s why these collectibles are still fetching good money on eBay.
These adorable characters were released several times in the ’80s and ’90s. They were offered in the shapes of different burgers, drinks, fries, chicken McNuggets, ice cream cones, hotcakes, and the Egg McMuffin.
Worst: Toothbrush and Toothpaste
It goes without saying why most kids hated this particular promotion. Dental hygiene is essential but putting toothbrushes in Happy Meals was a huge miss from the perspective of their intended audience.
Best: Super Looney Tunes Characters
Some of the most popular McDonald’s Happy Meal toy offerings featured collaborations between the fast food company and beloved characters from popular shows and movies. The cast of the Looney Tunes dressed up like superheroes is the perfect example of this working well.
McDonald’s debuted Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, and Taz in 1992 complete with cute costumes to dress them in. The toys were well-made and became an instant classic.
Worst: Gardening Tools
Helping mom and dad in the garden might be a fun pastime for some kids, but overall as a promotion this McDonald’s offering was a swing and a miss. Young customers simply couldn’t muster any enthusiasm when they received a trowel or seed packet alongside their McNuggets.
Best: 101 Dalmatians Collectibles
The biggest endeavor of all was that one time in 1996 when McDonald’s put out 101 different toys to coincide with the live-action Disney movie “101 Dalmatians.”
This was a genius marketing move because kids were encouraged to keep visiting, hoping to collect different characters with the ultimate goal of procuring a complete set. Both the movie and the Happy Meal promo were a doggone success.
Worst: American Idol MP3 Player
When is an mp3 player not an mp3 player? This promotional toy came out in 2007 when the reality competition show “American Idol” was at the height of popularity.
If it was real, it could have been a real draw for McDonald’s. Unfortunately, this so-called mp3 device only played the theme song over and over, making it a boring hunk of plastic that resembled an actual musical player in looks only.
Best: Hot Wheels Cars
There’s a reason why Hot Wheels toy cars are still beloved by kids more than 50 years after Mattel debuted them in 1968.
This Happy Meal promo worked because it took a popular toy and kept the quality, making it a collectible for kids that helped enhance the collections they already had at home. Hot Wheels cars for Happy Meals debuted in 1983 and have been on the menu at various times ever since.
Per Mashed, the original Hot Wheels were metal, then they switched to high quality plastic, and now they’re designed especially for the fast food behemoth.
Worst: Camp McDonaldland Camp Gear
Camping may be fun, but it’s not for everyone. Like other flops on the list, this camping gear set meant to promote the fictional Camp McDonaldland was not actually a toy.
It included a plastic frying pan (not heat safe), utensils, and a collapsible cup made of cheap plastic. This option did not create any Happy Campers.
Best: Teenie Beanies
McDonald’s attempted to capitalize on the Beanie Babies craze of the 90s by introducing a smaller version to go along with their Happy Meals. Since people were already convinced they could become millionaires hoarding these little stuffed animals, the promo caused chaos at drive-thru windows coast to coast as customers swooped in trying to collect all the different versions.
Over the years, the company has come out with other versions of this promo multiple times, including the more recent Teenie Beanie Boos with the big eyes.
Worst: Step-It Fitness Trackers
These wearable fitness trackers, which were introduced in 2016, were meant to encourage kids to be more active. Instead, they caused literal burns.
McDonald’s was forced to recall the product after getting more than 70 complaints of blisters on users’ wrists along with multiple instances of skin irritation. Again, this wasn’t an actual toy, and for many children it was downright dangerous.
Best: Inspector Gadget Collectibles
The genius of these Inspector Gadget themed toys is that they functioned individually but could be combined to create a full-sized action figure that was super cool to play with.
One arm was a mini-grabber, the other a water gun, and his legs extended out. On top of the Inspector’s head was his signature propeller hat that really spun. Kids loved playing with it, plus it encouraged multiple visits for anyone looking to build their own Inspector.
Worst: Shark Tale Jellyfish
One look at this poorly designed toy had parents wondering how the design made it through multiple rounds of approvals.
Meant to coincide with the release of the Dreamworks movie “Shark Tale” in 2004, the jellyfish didn’t do anything fun, plus it was unfortunately shaped very much like a phallus and had parents less than thrilled about letting their kids play with it.