Since 1979, McDonald’s Happy Meals have been an integral part of most childhoods, and whether it’s a once a week, once a month, or once a year treat, the excitement level for that iconic cardboard box is the same. Those perfectly salted fries and arguably plain but oh-so-tasty hamburger with just the right amount of rehydrated onion and pickle are the epitome of fast food deliciousness. But let’s be honest — it’s the toy that really matters when you’re anxiously waiting in the backseat of the car…
As a kid, you didn’t concern yourself with the history of the Happy Meal, or strange stories associated with it. So long as you could get your hands on that toy, what did you care? But adults might find it surprising that their little one’s favorite meals have been used as a drug front, or that the apple slices take an unusually long time to turn brown. And did that Minion toy really say what we think it said? Let’s dive into the untold truth of McDonald’s famous Happy Meal.
Vintage toys can be worth a pretty penny
Most of us had that box of beat up Happy Meal toys from our childhood that at some point in our teen years got put into the donation pile without a second thought. But if you’d kept that box, and if those toys had been in pristine condition and in the original packaging, they might be worth a pretty penny today.
In May 2018, LoveAntiques.com commissioned a toy expert to compile a list of "the most valuable McDonald’s toys you may have at home," and the potential sales figures might surprise you. At the top of the list, coming in at $450, is a set of TY’s Teenie Beanie Boos from 2000, which the site says is "much rarer than their toy shop equivalent." The oldest toys on the list, both from 1979 and going from $400 each, are a set of Underwater Monsters, and Robots by Diener Keshi. Not too shabby for a few pieces of plastic, right? On the flip side, if you somehow managed to track down all 101 toys from the 1996 101 Dalmatians collection, you’d only be looking at $220, and considering you probably spent more on the Happy Meals, that’s not such a great return on investment.
But how much can you really get for them?
Now you’re probably kicking yourself for tossing your Happy Meal toys all those years ago, but are those numbers even feasible in the real world? According to Today.com, who spoke to experts in toys and antiques, the likelihood of getting rich quick from vintage Mickey D’s toys is not great, but of course there are always exceptions. Dov Kelemer, president of DKE Toys, explained, "Unfortunately, in my toy dealing experience most modern McDonald’s Happy Meal toys have little or no value to collectors and I doubt there are any notable auction houses selling them."
Today reports that most toy listings on eBay are firmly in the under-$100 range, with an occasional jaw-dropping auction price popping up, like a complete set of 100 Years of Disney Magic toys for an astounding $10,000. "As with any collectibles category, the main factors of value are supply and demand, impacted often by a ‘nostalgia curve’…" antiques appraiser Gary Sohmers noted. In other words, rare gems could fetch high dollars, but most likely won’t.
San Francisco tried to ruin all the fun
San Francisco might be considered the West Coast’s foodie paradise for adults, but in 2010 they voted to dash the dreams of all Happy Meal-loving kids when, according to Reuters, its Board of Supervisors passed a law requiring that "restaurant kids’ meals meet certain nutritional standards before they could be sold with toys." The law, which went into effect in 2011, allowed toys to be given away provided that the meal "have less than 600 calories, contain fruits and vegetables, and include beverages without excessive fat or sugar."
McDonald’s obviously opposed the law, saying in a statement, "We are extremely disappointed with today’s decision. It’s not what our customers want, nor is it something they asked for." Of course, the company quickly found a loophole for this new law without having to comply with all those pesky nutritional requirements: A 10 cent donation to the Ronald McDonald House. By tacking an extra dime onto each Happy Meal purchase when a toy was included, they were able to satisfy their obligation to the law and benefit their charity at the same time.
The cheeseburger Happy Meal is a thing of the past
Since that 2011 San Francisco toy ban, McDonald’s has made some positive changes to their famous Happy Meal. The option of apple slices (which actually began in 2004), gave parents the choice between french fries or fruit, but today, a regular Happy Meal bundle automatically includes the choice of apple slices, low-fat Yoplait Go-Gurt, or Cuties (when in season), and a smaller kid-sized fry. The soft drink option is also long gone, and now it’s a choice between milk or apple juice. It was a good start…
But thanks to chocolate milk and cheeseburgers, the Happy Meal was still hitting above that 600 calorie mark. In an effort to finally get the numbers down, McDonald’s removed the cheeseburger and chocolate milk Happy Meal options in June 2018. The chocolate milk was slated to return later with reduced sugar. Currently, the highest calorie combination — six-piece Chicken McNuggets, fries, Go-Gurt, and 1 percent milk — comes in at 530 calories. Great news, right? Not for everyone… While you might think this healthy change would be celebrated all around, adult consumers took to social media lamenting the removal of the cheeseburger, dubbing it a #sadmeal. Proof that you can’t win ’em all.
But why don’t those apple slices turn brown?
Parents celebrated when McDonald’s made the change to include apple slices in their Happy Meals, but alarms started going off when consumers realized that the fruit took an unusually long time to turn brown. So what’s the deal?
A quick glance at the ingredient list for the apple slices will clue you in — along with the fruit you’ll find calcium ascorbate, which according to McDonald’s is "a blend of calcium and vitamin C to maintain freshness and color." But is calcium ascorbate some scary chemical we should be afraid of? Nope. According to the FDA, it’s "generally recognized as safe when used in accordance with good manufacturing practice," and at the end of the day, actually makes those apple slices much more palatable than if not treated. This is because as soon as an apple is cut, oxygen starts to deteriorate its flesh and causes it to turn brown. Thanks to the calcium ascorbate dip (also called NatureSeal), the cut apple slices are protected from those changes in texture, color, and taste, and have an impressive 21-day shelf life.
WTF did that Minion say?
A Despicable Me Happy Meal toy caused an uproar when outraged grandparents alerted the media to a Minion, which was included in their grandchild’s meal, that appeared to be spewing profanity (you can listen here). Indeed, to those of us with potty mouths, the toy does seem to be saying, "What the f***?"
McDonald’s, however, denied the claims, and a spokesperson told MarketWatch that the loin cloth clad Minion toy included three recorded sounds: "Para la bukay," "hahaha," and "eh eh." Apparently "hahaha" in Minionese sounds an awful lot like "WTF?" in English. "We’re aware of a very small number of customers who have been in touch regarding this toy, and we regret any confusion or offense to those who may have misinterpreted its sounds. The allegation that this toy is saying anything offensive or profane is not true," the company said. McDonald’s did not pull the toy over the controversy, and there’s no telling how many kids picked up a useful new phrase.
A Happy Meal with a side of heroin
Imagine if you rolled through the McDonald’s drive-thru for a special surprise for your kids and ended up with a Happy Meal full of heroin. Sounds unbelievable, but that’s exactly what you would have gotten at one Pittsburgh location if you said the magic words: "I’d like to order a toy." Since a toy can legitimately be purchased separately from a Happy Meal (in some regions), the request wouldn’t have seemed too out of the ordinary for those in the know, but in this case that "toy" was actually heroin.
McDonald’s employee Shantia Dennis was arrested in 2014 after she was busted by undercover police officers for, among other charges, possession with intent to deliver heroin. After receiving a tip from an informant, the officers ordered a "toy" in Dennis’ drive-thru, paid her $80 for what should have been about a $2 bill, and got a Happy Meal box full of 10 small bags of heroin. No word on whether the order also included the usual hamburger and fries, but if it did, it was a real "value meal."
What exactly is Mario doing?
Over the years McDonald’s has featured several Super Mario collections, and some of those toys have struck consumers as a bit odd.
In 2017, a collection that debuted in the UK prompted punny headlines like, "Super Mario McDonald’s UK Happy Meal Toys Revealed, Evidently Much to Mario’s Relief." See, Mario is supposedly sitting on a pile of bricks, but if you use your imagination, you can easily see Nintendo’s favorite plumber copping a squat on the toilet. EuroGamer.net reported that commenters had a field day with the revelation, with one user remarking, "So that’s where the phrase ‘sh***ing bricks’ comes from!" Cue the rimshot.
In another incident, tabloid website The Mirror reported on a toy that "looks like it’s performing a sex act." This particular Mario had a mechanical arm with a boomerang in his hand, but when the boomerang was removed, the hand was left with a hole in the middle. Couple that with the up-down motion of the arm and, well… you can come to your own conclusions as to what Mario was doing. Tyler Atfield, the "horrified father" at the center of this story who allegedly gave quotes like, "They should not be giving out toys that look like that. My kids started doing the action and it was so wrong," later said that he was the victim of a prank and had never complained about the toy. Prank or not, it does look a little suspicious, doesn’t it?
They give McDonald’s a notable distinction in the toy world
We know that McDonald’s has sold billions of burgers, but what about Happy Meals? While the company isn’t typically forthcoming with juicy statistics when it comes to their Happy Meal sales, Sense360 was able to glean some mind-blowing data from a 2016 McDonald’s press release. By calculating the data based on a snapshot of sales, the firm determined that the fast food company sells — are you ready for this? — 3.2 million Happy Meals per day. So, if McDonald’s is selling 89 Happy Meals every second, and there’s a toy in every box, you don’t need a calculator to know that the Golden Arches is also doling out a whole lot of toys. In fact, they’re the world’s largest distributor of toys.
"We distribute 1.4 billion toys a year globally," Pam Edwards, McDonald’s director of consumer product safety, told The Toronto Star in 2015. "There’s about 550 [toys] a year that are designed and distributed around the world." Unbelievably, they’re all designed and produced in one place: The Marketing Store. The development lab has been heading the task for over 30 years, and the process for any given toy begins 15 to 18 months prior to landing in your Happy Meal. Makes you appreciate that plastic Pokémon a bit more, doesn’t it?
What’s the real deal with the 6-year-old Happy Meal?
We’ve all heard those rumors about McDonald’s food never rotting, and a viral Facebook post in 2016 only added fuel to that fire. The post featured images of a 6-year-old Happy Meal that looked not dissimilar to a fresh Happy Meal, and exclaimed, "It’s been 6 years since I bought this ‘Happy Meal’ at McDonald’s. It’s been sitting at our office this whole time and has not rotted, molded, or decomposed at all!!! It smells only of cardboard. We did this experiment to show our patients how unhealthy this ‘food’ is… There are so many chemicals in this food!"
But it’s actually not chemicals that preserve the food and prevent it from rotting — it’s the lack of moisture. Any food needs moisture and warmth to rot, and McDonald’s food, just like any other food, will in fact start to decompose in a warm, moist environment. But left in its paper wrappers, and starting out on the dry side as it is, it simply dehydrates rather than rots. Bottom line: It might be surprising to see a 6-year-old Happy Meal looking fairly edible, but it could result in a broken tooth.