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Disney, Now Happy with Happy Meals, Reunites with McDonald's

By Published on .

Disney's return to promotions with McDonald's Happy Meals will kick off with 'Incredibles 2.'
Disney's return to promotions with McDonald's Happy Meals will kick off with 'Incredibles 2.' Credit: iStock; The Walt Disney Company; composite by Ad Age

McDonald's and Disney have reunited in a deal that will bring Disney movie toys back to Happy Meals for the first time since 2006 and gives both megabrands new ways to market to families over the next few years.

The agreement helps McDonald's as it looks for new ways to increase the massive business it does with families, who already make up 25 percent of all visits to its U.S. restaurants, and gives Disney a big way to reach millions of potential moviegoers.

McDonald's hadn't been able to promote any Walt Disney Co. movie in its Happy Meals since 2006. That's when Disney opted not to renew a 10-year pact, in part because Happy Meals didn't meet Disney's then-new nutrition guidelines. McDonald's has made several changes since then, including ones announced earlier this month, which mean its Happy Meals are about to become compliant with Disney's food criteria.

Fittingly, as the collaboration is a sequel to an earlier pact, it kicks off with two sequels: "Incredibles 2," which opens June 15, followed by "Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2," due Nov. 21.

(McDonald's current Happy Meal tie-in promotes the movie "Peter Rabbit" from Sony.)

The new pact covers select movies from Walt Disney Animation Studios, Pixar Animation Studios, Disney Live Action, Marvel Studios and Lucasfilm. Terms of the multiyear deal, being announced to McDonald's U.S. franchisees Tuesday afternoon, were not disclosed.

"The relationship today is probably very different from the relationship of the past," says McDonald's U.S. Chief Marketing Officer Morgan Flatley, who joined McDonald's in 2017. "Both of our businesses and our brands are just in very different places today."

Clearly, both companies have changed a bit since 2006, when the final Disney Happy Meals included toys tied to a DVD release of 1989's "The Little Mermaid."

McDonald's is busy trying to modernize the look of its restaurants; the outreach it does to diners through its app, commercials and other marketing; and its food, which now includes "artisan" buns, for example, and will soon feature some fresh beef burgers nationwide. And Disney has steadily updated its portfolio, including through the acquisitions of Marvel and Lucasfilm. Both corporate giants, like their rivals, also want to ensure that they market themselves properly and wisely to families, who are paying ever-closer attention to what their kids consume.

"It is important for us to stay in front of consumers and keep them excited about the different properties that we're launching at any given time," says Tiffany Rende, senior VP of corporate alliances at The Walt Disney Co. "McDonald's has obviously huge scale [and] great reach for our audiences."

One difference from the 1997-2006 collaboration is that this new multiyear pact is non-exclusive, giving both McDonald's and Disney leeway to work with other companies on other promotions. Disney will continue to work with other companies that meet its nutrition criteria, like Subway, says Rende.

McDonald's removed soft drinks from the Happy Meal menu board in 2013 and last year began offering an Honest Kids organic apple juice drink that contains fewer calories and less sugar than regular apple juice. Earlier this month it announced plans including removing the cheeseburger from the Happy Meal menu board and reducing the serving size of fries that comes with the 6-piece McNugget meals. By June, all combinations on Happy Meal menu boards in U.S. restaurants will be 600 calories or fewer.

Neither Flatley nor Rende would share details on the first rounds of toys set to debut this year. But they say they're working on ways to promote movies that will differ from past Happy Meals executions. Those plans include space on McDonald's digital menu boards and within the McDonald's app, as well as through Happy Meal packaging and products.

For now, there are no plans to bring McDonald's restaurants back into Disney theme parks. One restaurant sits on Walt Disney World property in Florida, but it's far outside the theme parks.

Other markets that follow the U.S. Happy Meal program are part of the Disney deal. They include Puerto Rico, Aruba, Curacao, U.S. Virgin Islands (St. Thomas and St. Croix), Samoa, Suriname, the Dominican Republic and Trinidad, McDonald's says.

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article said the Disney deal applied to St. Maarten and the Commonwealth of the Bahamas. Those markets are not part of the Disney program.

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