I saw an article on one of the many “suggested articles” on Facebook not long ago that caught my attention. It was about McDonald’s Happy Meal toys from the 80s and 90s that every kid wanted. Not one to usually swallow clickbait, I devoured this without hesitation. There were so many toys that I remember having (and wish I still did). After many reflections and an equal amount of smiles, I began to ruminate on the nostalgia of Happy Meals.
Blunt reality is that they are a genius marketing gimmick that McDonald’s nailed dead center in 1979. Beyond that though, I feel like they were so much deeper. Growing up we didn’t have a ton of money. My parents worked super hard and provided us with an excellent life, but we weren’t swimming in a pool of coins, Scrooge McDuck style. When we got the chance to go to McDonald’s, it was a big event. Happy Meals were a cherished prize and the toy had to be worth it. I was concerned about ROI at 5 years old without even knowing it. That plastic/rubber/cloth toy was the ultimate reward in my young mind. I began to wonder if I could recapture that feeling I had as a 5 year old in 1989 a mere 28 years later as a 33 year old in 2018. Or, am I too jaded? Only one way to find out. It’s time for TBT: Turn Back Time.
As I drove to McDonald’s I pondered how, very likely, my last Happy Meal trip involved me being driven as opposed to driving McDonald’s. It made me feel that such easy accessibility removes some of the anticipation and special-treat feeling from the process. It’s like realizing you can go to any grocery store and buy a cake anytime you want. They will even write on it for you. Not quite as special anymore. Same here. Knowing I can drive to get a Happy Meal whenever takes away from the magic.
I hit the drive thru with anticipation about my upcoming order. As I got to the order board, I felt the faintest touch of icey disappointment. Happy Meal was not listed anywhere among the choices. Not sitting atop the Value Meals, hidden in the salads, or buried under the $1 Menu. I began to think that they didn’t exist anymore. Maybe McDonald’s realized that this is 2018 and there were healthier ways for people to feed their kids. Then I remembered that the McGriddle, a egg sandwich with syrup-soaked pancakes as bread, was served all day. So, I figured I would just yell with a hopeful voice “one cheeseburger Happy Meal with fries and a Coke” into the order box. A gruff, but pleasant voice replied “That will be $3. First window please.” Minutes later I was placing the red square box with the big yellow smile on the seat next to me. Away we go!!
As it was such a nice day out, I decided to indulge in my childhood in the backyard sun. I opened the box and pulled everything out, saving the toy for last. (More on that in a minute.) As I began eating the thought “didn’t these burgers used to be bigger” flashed through my mind. I will give McDonald’s this, they have stayed loyal to replicating the same flavors roughly three decades later. I’m sure things have changed over the years, but it didn’t taste like it. The burger was just as I remembered. It wasn’t tasty, but it wasn’t awful either. I personally think McDonald’s burgers have a distinct taste that you never can seem to find replicated in the real world. I don’t hate it, but I wouldn’t want to eat it every day either. As I was dedicated to replicating my memories as much as I could, I left ketchup on the burger. Meh. The fries were perfectly salty and the Coke was chemically pleasing. My nostalgia was starting to feel satisfied.
All that was left was to check out the toy. I won’t pretend that I had self control or patience as a child. I know the toy was likely out, unwrapped on the table before my food was even unpacked. Adult me has learned to delay until I at least unpack the food. Upon pulling out the toy both my past and current self felt a deep sense of remorse for the Happy Meal kids of today. It was a stuffed tiger… sigh. This was NOT what I remember for childhood. Educational toys steal the ball! I’m sure it was only temporary, but phtttttt. I digress, back to the toy. It was a partnership with National Geographic to bring endangered species to the front of people’s minds. It came complete with a card all about Bengal tigers. Listen, I love this idea. We should be reminding people that we aren’t the only creatures borrowing this planet. I just don’t think it counts as a toy. I can order a burger and fries to satisfy my hunger. I can drink a Coke if I want to slowly dissolve my insides. The toy was the magic. Gone was the McNugget Buddies, the Changeables, and the Halloween pails. Those were the things that made a Happy Meal awesome. Needless to say, I was disappointed.
The purpose of starting theses TBTs is to see if you can slip back into a memory successfully or to realize that “nostalgia is a seductive liar”, as George Ball said in 1971. One thing I’ll say is that recreating a memory is a lot harder than people think. You can’t unlearn how to drive back to the level of your 5-year-old self. You can’t replace the childlike excitement for a special treat that is no longer that special. You can’t even be 100% sure that the things you ate 30 years ago taste the same today. Not to mention things out of your control, like current toys. Yet, all of that aside, I found a warm ember of childhood among the smoke of nostalgia. Eating that Happy Meal made a part of a warm happy memory flare up and caused me to smile. I recommend you give it a shot. See if you can stoke a small wisp of flame from the depths. Maybe you’ll even get a fun toy! Until next time my faithful readers, may your Grimace be a weird purple thing and your Mayor McCheese have glasses and a hat.