As part of our ongoing series into the sad history of McDonald’s Happy Meal toys, we’ve shown you some of the most terrible ideas that have ever existed. Unfortunately, there are still so many more that just can’t be forgotten. A Happy Meal is supposed to make you happy, not sad. Nowadays, McDonald’s is trying to gear itself toward more educational toys like books, but back in the day, Happy Meal toys were something to be really excited about. For kids, that sinking feeling of opening up your Happy Meal to see what you got and pulling out something utterly useless, not fun, or straight-up sad is just soul-crushing. Granted, at that age, there aren’t a lot of things in the world to be worried about, so this can feel like a big deal. Needless to say, these toys really missed the mark.
10. Letterland Postcards and Stationery
In the late ’70s, ’80s, and early ’90s, McDonald’s marketing was deeply embedded in their fantasy world, McDonaldland. This fantasy world was where all of their fictional characters lived, like the Hamburgler and Ronald McDonald. The world included scenery such as milkshake volcanoes and Fillet-O-Fish lakes. Many of the Happy Meal toys featured the McDonaldland characters, and the McDonaldland theme provided the basis for a lot of the items in the McDonald’s PlayPlaces. For example, kids could climb inside a jail shaped like a Big Mac. Inside McDonaldland was Letterland, where the fictional post office was, and for a period of time, the Happy Meal toys were Letterland themed stationery and postcards. First, let’s start off with the obvious – postcards are not a toy. Children do not want to play with little pieces of paper. What little kid is using stationery, anyway? Half of the kids who eat Happy Meals can’t even write, let alone build up some contacts to send correspondence to. Postcards are for people on vacation or in other countries to send to their friends and family back home. No kid needs that unless they’re sending their grandmother a postcard telling them how much fun they’re having at McDonald’s down the street. Then, to make things worse, to actually use the postcards for their intended purpose you had to go out and buy a stamp separately. That means you had to spend more money on a toy you already paid money to get. Perhaps children used their Letterland stationery to write letters to Santa to ask for better toys because they were so disappointed by this lackluster excuse for one.
9. Batman Returns Toys
In 1992, back before superhero and comic book-based movies dominated Hollywood cinema, Tim Burton released Batman Returns. It was the second Batman film in what would become a growing franchise, pre-dating any Avengers blockbusters. The film featured Michael Keaton returning for his role as the Caped Crusader, Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman, and Danny DeVito as The Penguin. At the time, McDonald’s wanted in on the franchise action and planned their Happy Meal toys to coincide with the film’s launch. The toys themselves were little cartoon-style versions of the film’s characters, each in their own little cars. Catwoman’s purple Batmobile car even had a little tail sticking out. The problem with the Batman Returns toys wasn’t that they weren’t fun. It was the fact that they were really dark and based on a movie that wasn’t appropriate for the young children for whom the Happy Meals are designed. Burton himself is known for his love of dark themes and imagery, so that’s not really a surprise. However, after releasing the toys, McDonald’s faced a huge backlash once parents realized the contents of the movie itself. Batman Returns was contested with audiences because it had a lot of gross, somewhat disturbing, and violent scenes. It also came with a PG-13 rating, cut down from an R rating the studios had originally wanted to give it. This rating is well above the 1-10-year-old age range that Happy Meals are marketed to. Parents were so enraged that McDonald’s would make toys based on this inappropriate movie that many parent groups launched public campaigns against the burger giant, prompting McDonald’s to go after the studios for making their movies not marketable enough. The backlash from McDonald’s was so bad that Tim Burton stepped down from doing the next film in the series, Batman Forever, because the studio wanted to take it in a lighter direction.
8. Sky Dancers
Back in the ’90s, Sky Dancers were a really popular toy, especially among little girls. In fact, they were so popular they even created an animated TV show based on the toys. If you remember, Sky Dancers were little plastic fairies with long wings that sit on top of a plastic base. When launched, the dolls would spin into the air using the wings to propel them. Naturally, McDonald’s wanted to capitalize on this super popular trend, so they created their own version to include as the “girl toys” in their Happy Meals. Little girls likely got really excited when they found them lurking under their fries and burgers. However, there were a few issues with this particular toy that just didn’t work in a Happy Meal. Firstly, the Happy Meal version was made from cheap materials that didn’t hold up to the real thing. The dancers never really stood on the base properly, which meant they really didn’t work that well. Secondly, there was a safety risk to these seemingly fun toys. Sky Dancers were notorious for being dangerous. The way that the toy was designed meant that the fairies flew in unpredictable and sporadic directions. We’ve all likely seen that viral YouTube video where a little girl opens up a Sky Dancer for Christmas, launches it, and it promptly flies directly into the fireplace. As you can guess, this unpredictable flying pattern resulted in a lot of injuries. The toys were actually recalled and taken off the market in 2000 because there were over 150 direct injuries reported in the United States. Many of those injuries were eye injuries. One was a broken rib injury.
7. Foam Tickle Feathers
The tickle feather sponge was released in 1982, in the early days of basic Happy Meal toys. It was basically just a piece of foam in the shape of a feather meant for kids to randomly tickle their friends. But, according to marketing, only if they were “sponge worthy.” What does sponge worthy even mean? Chances are, this toy probably ended up annoying parents more than it provided any entertainment to children. Imagine kids running up to strangers using a foam feather to tickle them? How do you even go about trying to quell that particular situation? This was utterly useless and, quite frankly, strange. It really makes us wonder who in their right mind thought that a piece of cheap foam shaped like a tickle feather would be a great idea for a kid’s Happy Meal? Naturally, at the time, toys weren’t what they are today, and finding something economically efficient to put as a Happy Meal toy was pretty limited in scope. But this is a big miss and generally not an acceptable toy for a child. In fact, nowadays it would never go over well because it’s borderline inappropriate, considering there is also the fact that there is another type of tickle feather used in some particular adult activities. Giving children something that has such strong sexual undertones isn’t really a good move. Ultimately, the only practical use for this odd tickle sponge is soaking up the tears of disappointed children who were expecting something fun in their Happy Meal.
6. Shark Tale Jellyfish Toys
In 2004, Dreamworks released Shark Tale, an animated tale about a young fish who teams up with a vegetarian shark to escape an evil mob of sharks. As McDonald’s often does, the company teamed up with the movie studio to produce Happy Meal toys based on the film’s underwater characters. One of the toys was based on the Jamaican jellyfish characters in the film, and it definitely didn’t fly. First of all, there is a reason that jellyfish are only really seen in the water. Their entire design does not work when you try to replicate it on land. As a result, the design of this toy resembled a particular- ahem- phallic part of the body. Parents weren’t too impressed with this one because of its inappropriate shape. Even if you don’t see the resemblance, it still looks like some type of psychedelic mushroom instead of the jellyfish it’s supposed to be. Secondly, on top of its easily mistaken design, this toy was simply just weird and wasn’t really easy to play with because it has no particular use.
5. Nickelodeon Game Gadgets
Back before Disney cornered the market on kids’ entertainment, Nickelodeon was the dominating force on TV. For ’90s kids, Nickelodeon was the ultimate in after school programming, giving us classic hits like Hey, Arnold!, The Rugrats, Doug, Cat Dog, Ren and Stimpy, and so many more. Even now, ask any millennial about those shows, and they’ll get a gut-punch of nostalgia. So, naturally, everyone wanted a piece of that commercialization. McDonald’s partnered with Nickelodeon to release Nickelodeon Game Gadgets in Happy Meals in 1992. Ultimately, though, these were basically just plastic advertisements disguised as toys. The Game Gadgets included the following toys: Applause Paws, which were just basically plastic pieces that clapped together; Loud-Mouth Mike, which was some type of microphone; Blimp Game, which was a plastic blimp toy representing the Nickelodeon blimp that did virtually nothing; Gotcha Gusher Squirter, a tiny water gun that barely held enough water to spray someone; and Squirt Blimp, which was an even smaller version of the water gun for children under three. Each one had the Nickelodeon logo plastered all over it, in large font and bright, neon colors. Their only real use was to promote Nickelodeon and didn’t really provide much actual use for playing.
In the ’80s, toys that let you build things provided hours of entertainment for children. Popoids were toys sold as a set with lots of little parts that kids could use to build little people or other weird creatures. They could basically take the bendy parts like arms and legs and pop them onto plastic blocks and bases, making strange creatures, people, or even vehicles. McDonald’s Popoids were smaller versions of these toys, and each Happy Meal would come with a specific set that made a small object. The problem with these toys wasn’t really that they weren’t any fun, but that they were dangerous. Many kids at the time ended up getting their lips caught or pinched between the parts. McDonald’s Happy Meals are targeted toward young children, but the Popoids they released came with way too many small plastic parts. Today, it’d be hard for McDonald’s to even get these approved without any legal ramifications because of the choking hazard they pose. If even one kid choked on these, the PR nightmare would be a headache. While Popoids do still exist as its own brand, the products are designed for kids above a certain age and come in a larger size that would be harder to swallow if someone decided to put it in their mouth. The McDonald’s version wasn’t as safe.
3. Food Fundamentals
The Food Fundamentals were a collection of plastic food creatures that had arms, legs, and faces. Each one was a specific character based on one of the five healthy food groups on the food guide. Milly was a little milk carton holding a set of dumbells in her hands. Slugger was a juicy piece of steak with sunglasses, a sideways green baseball cap, and a ’70s style mustache. He was also flexing his muscles. Otis was a little whole wheat sandwich with a blue baseball helmet. Ruby was a little red apple who, for some reason, was winking and holding a tennis ball and racquet. Duncan was an ear of corn who wore a basketball outfit and held what’s supposed to be a basketball in his hand. The toys came folded up (except for Duncan, who was meant to be a toddler toy and doesn’t include small parts). When you opened them to pull out their hands and legs, they had little notepads inside shaped like their particular food representation. This was yet another failed attempt by McDonald’s to hypocritically promote healthy eating. While kids were munching down their large doses of sodium, trans fats, and calories, they could play with figures of healthy foods that weren’t sold at McDonald’s restaurants. Each toy also came with a little pamphlet that talked about healthy eating, provided tips about exercising, and had various little activities like word puzzles based on healthy food themes. While kids may have gotten some entertainment out of these toys, McDonald’s really has no business promoting healthy lifestyles to children while simultaneously serving them greasy burgers and processed chicken nuggets.
2. Ninjago Camera Viewer
In 2017, to coincide with the release of the Lego Ninjago movie, McDonald’s released a series of Happy Meal toys based on the ninja theme. There were six in total, including a secret message stick that you could hold up to a special paper to read “hidden” symbols, a kaleidoscope, and a locked journal. But one of them in particular was not much fun: the camera viewer. This was a plastic green camera with a dragon on the front and the Ninjago movie title on the back. While it seems like a cool idea in theory, all it actually did was show you stills of the Ninjago movie. You would use the shutter button to circle through a total of eight stills. Unless you really, really loved the movie and wanted to watch still images of it over and over again, there weren’t really many uses for this toy after the first time. This toy was kind of a nod to the classic View-Master toys that were popular in the late ’80s and early ’90s. These were fun way back before virtual reality and 3D movies were a big and easily accessed commodity. At the time, this was an exciting new technology people hadn’t seen before. But now, with so many advancements out there, kids these days just aren’t excited by this type of thing. Even the original View-Masters now use virtual reality imaging to stay on top of the digital trends. With just one reel of eight specific images, fun is pretty limited and boring.
1. Space Rescue Toys
Sometime in the ’90s, McDonald’s released a series of Space Rescue Toys in their Happy Meals. They were designed to make kids feel like they were going on a space rescue mission, although we’re not really sure what they were supposed to be saving. On the surface, they looked cool. They were odd-shaped gadgets designed to be futuristic looking, which is always a fun theme for anyone. What kid doesn’t love a good space adventure? However, there’s a right way to do a space toy and then there’s a wrong way. McDonald’s chose the wrong way, unfortunately. These toys didn’t go over well because they were too complicated to actually use. No one could really figure out what you were supposed to do with them or how they worked. In the time it took to figure out how to use them, kids had already turned their attention to something else. The neon drawing pad, which was basically a low-budget Etch-a-Sketch, was the only one that was relatively easy to figure out. But because it was cheaply made, it didn’t wipe completely clean, leaving permanent smudges all over the pad. It was only good for a certain amount of uses before you could barely draw anything.