The Happy Meal toy is one of the lowest common denominators of toys. It’s somewhere above that of a vending machine toy, but maybe not quite as good as the toys at the local pharmacy. It’s the kind of toy that a child is happy to have in the moment, and then a day later it’s at the bottom of a toy box or forgotten in the car. And that is essentially by design. The toy is just a means of attraction, like a cereal box toy, and also is a means of promotion. It gets the attention of a child via a commercial or restaurant signage which in turn gets said child to beg their parents to buy them some delicious, but also terrible, food in order to get this temporary must-have item. And it works, probably too well, which is why the state of California actually banned McDonald’s from including a toy with its Happy Meal (you have to buy the toy separately for a meaningless amount of money) because the feeling was that fast food was a leading contributor to childhood obesity.
Like a lot of things, credit for the Happy Meal is given to some rich white guy, but the idea originated elsewhere. Its roots can be traced to Guatemala where restaurant operator Yolanda Fernández de Cofiño first came up with the concept of creating a meal for kids making it easy for parents to just walk in and order an item for their children. McDonald’s liked the idea so much, that it basically adopted the concept worldwide and thus the Happy Meal was born. It debuted in 1977 and Bob Bernstein is recognized by the company as the creator of the product. It went national in ’79, and that year the first big marketing tie-in was utilized in the form of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Kids who received a Happy Meal during this promotion would receive a piece of a comic book strip. In order to see the full story, they had to keep coming back and buying more.
This concept of having to buy repeated Happy Meals for a larger experience is not one utilized by the company very often. Usually, a Happy Meal is just connected to an external property and cheap toys are made based on that property to promote a movie, TV show, or something else. Occasionally, there is no real outside promotion and McDonald’s just promotes itself. In fact, some of the most well-remembered Happy Meal toys fall into this category. I know when I was a kid, a personal favorite of mine were the transforming meal item toys. Originally, there were food items that transformed into robots. There was no connection to the Transformers officially, but I’m sure that’s where the influence came from. Later the robots were replaced with dinosaurs leading to one of my all-time favorite Happy Meal toys: The McNugget-O-Saurus! Another popular promotion were the Halloween trick-or-treat pails featuring a pumpkin, ghost, and witch. These pails would reappear several times, and the best version featured a removable piece in the center of the lid to pass the candy through, though all knew these pails were far too small for actual trick-or-treating.
And that’s not to say that the external promotional items weren’t memorable as well. A lot of the times they were just simple, cheap, toys with an action feature that was often repeated. Other times though there was a gimmick that worked a bit better. For some reason, I have strong memories of some Tiny Toons cars that featured a domed portion that contained an action when the car was pushed. I had Buster and in his dome was a mini basketball court and the ball would shoot in the air and sometimes go through the little plastic hoop inside. I don’t know why I remember this particular toy. I know I got it when my mom took me and me alone to McDonald’s, a rarity as often my sister would be included. She must have been at a sleep over or something and my mom wanted to treat me. We got it at my favorite McDonald’s too, a blue-roofed restaurant somewhere near Gloucester, VA that also had a classic car in the dining room (I want to guess it was a Chevy, but can’t recall). We only lived there a short while, and my guess is that McDonald’s is gone and replaced with one of the newer models which is a shame. Another promotion I remember is coincidentally another Warner one that featured a Loony Tunes figurine with snap-on DC super hero costumes. I had the Bugs as Superman and I liked it so much I nearly bought a set a year ago off of eBay, but thought better of it.
I have some positive memories of Happy Meal toys, but like most kids turned adults, I don’t physically own any of those toys. They were disposable, and while I liked them in the moment, I soon forgot about them. I have even fewer memories of competitors Burger King and Wendy’s. They followed suit with kids meals as well, Burger King even had the Burger King Kid’s Club in the 90s with its own cast of characters. I remember BK was the first to land the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles license, but their toys were terrible. When Disney and McDonald’s had a break-up, BK was also there to swoop in leading to some worthwhile attractions. They were actually separate from their kid’s meal though and included things like puppets. I remember two versions based on Toy Story in particular.
Which brings us to today’s post, Toy Story 4 Happy Meal toys. Ever since Disney and McDonald’s kissed and made up in 2018, the franchise has rolled out several Happy Meal promotions based on a Disney property. They even just went back-to-back with Toy Story 4 and now The Lion King and earlier this year had toys based on The Avengers. As a parent of small kids, I am often asked to go to McDonald’s because, like most kids, they love Happy Meals. McDonald’s is often tempting because it’s cheap, tastes good, and my kids will actually eat it. Most parents likely know the frustration of making a meal only for a picky eater to just poke at it and play with it. Dinner time is not fun, and feeding a kid something they’ll actually eat is often quite tempting. McDonald’s has improved its Happy Meals to a point, but they’re still pretty unhealthy. As such, I rarely give in with my kids maybe averaging one trip per month, but it’s harder when the toys are so attractive.
I have a Disney family. We all love Disney and Pixar too and Toy Story 4 in particular. When I saw the toys I didn’t think much of them, but then I saw what they could do. Individually, they’re unremarkable. Some are even terrible. Most feature a figurine of one of the film’s characters and a base with an action feature of some kind. The first one we received was Forky while we were on a road trip. Forky’s figurine is a good enough likeness that it’s cute, and his base features a dumpster and he’s supposed to get launched into it. I never saw my kid pull it off as he often missed. And poor Forky’s paint application was so cheap that it started to scratch off. Others, like Trixie and Rex, lack a figurine and just imitate a carnival ride and is quite dull. Ducky and Bunny at least feature a roulette wheel that’s a game. It’s a boring game, but at least it does something. By far, the most fun are Buzz and newcomer Duke Kaboom. Buzz just gets launched straight into the air, which is pretty common for a Happy Meal toy, but it’s at least common for a reason. Duke is similar, only he gets launched horizontally off a ramp. The only odd thing about him is that the wheels on his motorcycle aren’t actual wheels. He just glides. Woody and Bo Peep both feature a dull action, but at least the figurines look nice.
All in all, there are ten toys to collect and if you manage to collect them all, like that original Star Trek promotion, you can experience something more. The base pieces from each toy combine to re-create the RV Bonnie and her family travel in during the film. This concept has always intrigued me and as a kid it was also something that felt out of reach. As an adult though I’ve taken advantage of it as a build-a-figure attraction with toy lines like Marvel Legends and even Futurama. It’s a brilliant concept as it can lead to people purchasing a character they may not want, but will help them complete a figure they do want. As a Happy Meal toy, it’s even more frustrating as who goes to McDonald’s enough times in a month to get 10 toys? Plus, each restaurant receives a different allotment of toys so even if you were to walk in intending to just buy the toys outright you’d likely end up disappointed. When I took my kids, all they had was Forky, which was good for my son since that was the one he wanted, but it deprived us of a second piece as my daughter received the same.
We ended up seeing Toy Story 4 two weeks after that visit, which meant another McDonald’s trip. There my kids received separate toys – score! One more visit at the end of the promotion lead to a fourth toy. That was more than enough Happy Meals and an extended McDonald’s break is now needed, but as a toy collector I couldn’t look at these four now discarded toys and not want to see the end goal realized.
To eBay I went! There I found several listings for complete sets and individual toys. Most sellers wanted somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 to 50 bucks for a set of 10. No thanks. Individually, most were also trying to mark these things up as high as 10 bucks a figure, some yet to factor in shipping! I initially abandoned my pursuit, but on occasion I would get curious and do another search. With the promotion nearly over I was hoping that some who tried to collect a set by simply going to the restaurant would have failed and given up by putting what they had on eBay. I ended up being proved right as I found an auction for 7 distinct pieces, plus numerous doubles. Since there was a secondary promotion with these figures in the form of a contest you had to enter, that may have also contributed to people buying up a bunch of these things in hopes of winning a trip to Disney World or something. Whatever the reason, this person had a bunch of toys and I ended up paying about 10 bucks for the whole lot.
The problem with doing so was that I was a figure short. Bo Peep was the one toy that between my own visits and this stranger on eBay’s lot that managed to elude me. I couldn’t let myself come up a figure short, and I paid an eBay price for her. I’m not proud, but in the end at least I didn’t pay 40 bucks to assemble this thing, because had I done so I would have been extremely disappointed.
Now, I wasn’t expecting anything spectacular, but I did hope to end up with an interesting visual display to mark the release of Toy Story 4, one that would hopefully prove relatively unique down the road. Most of the toys come with stickers that can be applied. There’s some freedom afforded here as some include window decals that feature a character, and some that are empty. I chose to omit the creepy puppet character, because he’s both creepy and because he never set foot on the RV in the movie. The outer wheels of the RV are just decals with the real wheels actually found underneath the RV. It can roll, it’s just unconventional in how it does so. The pieces all connect rather easily, the only tricky one is the front piece (#2) that connects the top and bottom. That part is a bit frustrating, but manageable. Forky’s launcher serves as the ladder and can be affixed to the rear of the RV. There are pegs on the top to place figurines, and Jessie’s posts are designed to go in-between piece #2 and the body of the RV.
The end result is a mildly attractive piece, but also one that’s a touch fragile. If I turned this over to my kids it would probably fall apart constantly. Or, they would want to take it apart to make use of the individual toys, even though they mostly suck. That’s why I’m glad that eBay lot contained numerous doubles. They have plenty of toys to play with, and Dad has his display piece. The RV would look a lot better with more color. It’s all one, uniform, shade of light gray with only the stickers to really break things up. I generally hate stickers on toys, but I wish McDonald’s had included more to add more color. I suppose I could paint it if I felt that strongly about it, but I’m too scared I would end up with something I disliked ever more if I went that route.
Not including the Happy Meals I bought my kids, I ended up spending a little over 20 bucks to assemble this thing. If I saw it in a store for 20 bucks would I buy it? Maybe. Probably not for myself, but if my kid wanted it as a present I’d probably be okay at that amount. And then I’d also probably think it’s overpriced depending on how much enjoyment my kid got out of it. It felt like a unique thing to have though, and I do adore my Disney related knick knacks. Now I just need to find a place for it. It’s pretty big, probably around 8″ long, so that won’t be an easy task. I don’t expect this thing to appreciate much though, especially given that prices for that set of Loony Tunes as superheroes I mentioned earlier were pretty reasonable. It should still retain its neatness though, even if one day it just winds up being some toy I hand off to a random kid visiting my house once my own kids age out of traditional toys. Hopefully, McDonald’s has no plans for similar releases as I don’t want to be tempted again by another build-a-set series.