McDonald’s debuted the Happy Meal in 1979, 39 years after the first McDonald’s was opened in San Bernardino, California. With that meal came a circus wagon for kids to play with. Since then, the toys have evolved with the times as much as they can. That said, the standard Happy Meal surprise is still quite a bit lower-tech than the average toy kids are playing with today. Typically, these toys have been linked with current pop culture. Disney, for instance, has been tying their products into Happy Meal toys since the 1980s. Would you believe the first branded McDonald’s collectible actually featured a puzzle and images connected the Star Trek film, Star Trek: The Motion Picture? If you are intrigued by this history, there is a mountain of miniature toys to collect so read on!
How exactly Happy Meal toys came to be is a bit muddled but let’s see what we can untangle. The meals were actually predated at McDonald’s by the “Treat of the Week”, which was a little trinket that came along with whatever meal kids ordered. A St. Louis-area McDonald’s manager named Dick Bram is considered the ‘father of the Happy Meal’ by some, but an advertising executive named Bob Bernstein deserves at least part of that credit. Many roll him into the history saying he actually developed the idea basing it on the ‘Menu Ronald’ from a McDonald’s in Guatemala.
No matter what you believe about the history, what is not in question is the fact that a number of the Happy Meals toys have become collector’s items over the years. Some of the more popular ones – like those Beanie Babies released in the 1990s – haven’t become particularly valuable, but they are still sought and collected by some fans. Looking to start your collection, be it Beanie or otherwise? Here are seven Happy Meals toy lines that are currently still fairly affordable and can be purchased in some cases for as low as ten dollars. It’s a great way to start your classic collection full of nostalgia today!
While the pucks didn’t feature the characters from the 1990s movie series and are instead designed after the lesser-loved cartoon, these pucks are one of the more 1990s specific Happy Meal toys. These ducks were released in 1997, look a little like aliens and were one of few toys that were durable enough to have use beyond just looking cute. A set of four unopened should only set you back around $9.95.
Nerf toys kind of define the idea of classic kids toys and they have remained popular through the years. The Nerf guns are a simple pleasure. The classic Nerf basketball is a great way to play hoops in your room. In more recent years, they’ve even expanded their line to include a full-on zombie hunting kit. Each year their products continues to grow and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
In 2009, McDonald’s took Nerf toys and shot them with a shrink ray. In each meal, kids could get a mini football set (complete with it own goal post), a mini basketball and hoop or a mix of different mini blaster sets. There were eight options in all to collect. Since then, McDonald’s has released a few other Nerf sets – including a mini disk set and a 2015 set that resembles the original – but the 2009 one stands out above all the rest for the collector. The original eight can be found for under $20 if you know where to look and later sets are even cheaper.
Introduced in 1987, Changeables may be McDonald’s smartest branded creation ever. The toys were all robots that looked just like McDonald’s menus items that the company wanted kids to buy. In short, Changeables were McDonald’s toys that made kids think about wanting to eat McDonald’s all the time. Basically, the burger chain designed toys to make people want to eat there and market constantly. Brilliant!
There were three series (1987, 1989 and 1990) of these toys produced. The 1987 series consisted of six menu items that shifted into unnamed robots. The 1989 series added names and the 1990 series changed the food into dinosaurs instead of robots. The 1987 series can still be obtained as a set for around $20 with later sets being even more affordable.
In 1997 the Ty Beanie Babies spun off a McDonald’s brand called Teenie Beanies. McDonald’s served up these tiny Beanies for customers in 1997, 1998, 2000, 2004, 2009 and 2014. If you find yourself nostalgic for this era of collectibles, you are in luck as the hottest collectible year (the original 1997) set is available via online auction sites for as little as $10 for all ten Beanies (still in the original bag). If you’re familiar with the items, you’ll recognize animals like the penguin, lizard and lobster that ushered in a mini-sensation causing many branches to run out of the toys long before the promotions closed.
Looking back, Digi Sportz was one of McDonald’s best attempts to offer a tech-based toy to kids who grew up playing video and computer games. The games were actually fun, if simplistic, and there were eight different ones to collect. Oddly enough, something like this – albeit with better tech and graphics – might cost around $30 today. Almost every version of Digi Sportz is currently available on the secondary market. For instance, a unopened baseball edition would only cost you about $7.
Space Jam is perhaps the most 1990s creation ever. It featured cartoon characters that were at their peak, the defining athlete of the time in Michael Jordan (plus other 90s NBA stars) and even pulled in Bill Murray before it was done. While there were a number of Space Jam toys on the market, the 1996 Space Jam plushes at McDonald’s were a classic cross-promotion. You can add all six of them to your collection and be out less than $20 if you watch for just the right deal. This will leave you set for the next set if and when ‘Space Jam 2’ starring LeBron James comes out.
Back in the day there was a pair of Italian brothers who were plumbers. They were widely popular as a part of a wide network of video games made by Nintendo. McDonald’s, recognizing the strength of the Mario Bros., rolled out a toy in 1990 that capitalized on that popularity.
Super Mario Bros. 3 at McDonald’s meant playing the game with actual figurines instead of on a NES and this was at a time when that sort of transition to the real world still felt fresh. In the set you had a Spring launched Raccoon Mario, a pull-back Luigi sitting a cloud, a hopping Koopa Paratroopa, a back flipping Little Goomba and a squeezable Raccoon Mario figure (or the under 3 crowd). Sure we were missing the Bowsers, but it was great to see these characters presented with your meal and fans gobbled them up.
Today, all four figurines will run around $40 with a bit extra going toward finding the under 3 Mario. That’s a lot cheaper that buying a new NES system and finding a working copy of the game to say the least.
So there you have it, seven solid considerations for starting your McDonald’s Happy Meal collection right now. Happy hunting!