McDonald’s is bringing back some of its most popular Happy Meal toys in a nostalgic bid to drum up visits from families with young children—or collectors hungry to snag another Beanie Boo, Furby or Hello Kitty.
The Golden Arches’ kid-sized meal is old enough to have kids of its own. The Happy Meal turned 40 this year. McDonald’s is celebrating by bringing back 17 toys people might have missed out on the first time around, or might still have hidden somewhere in the basement or attic.
The limited-time return of the items for a few days starting Nov. 7 is dubbed the "Surprise Happy Meal" since it’s anyone’s guess which of the returning trinkets each diner will get along with their hamburger or McNuggets.
The toys coming back include Patti the Playtpus, the Teenie Beanie Baby that is one of the all-time best-selling Happy Meal toys, along with the Happy Meal versions of Tamagotchi and Furby. A Hot Wheels Thunderbird, a Power Ranger and a Space Jam Bugs Bunny toy, all from 1990’s Happy Meal releases, are also part of the promotion. And those who remember the McNugget buddies, characters from McDonald’s TV commercials that were sort of like miniature Mr. Potato Heads, but of McNugget shape, in 1988 Happy Meals, will be in luck. The cowboy, fireman and mail carrier McNuggets are returning. So are Grimace and Hamburglar toys that were in Happy Meals in the 1990s.
The idea is meant to “evoke feelings of nostalgia,” says Colin Mitchell, McDonald’s senior VP of global marketing. The push comes a year after McDonald’s celebrated the 50th anniversary of its Big Mac sandwich and saw lots of positive responses from that marketing approach, he said.
The return of the toys comes as other entities have been bashing the waste generated by plastic playthings. Rival Burger King went so far as to suggest last month that kids bring plastic toys into its U.K. restaurants to be melted down and repurposed.
McDonald’s has pledged to reduce its reliance on plastic toys and offer a variety of prizes. As McDonald's points out, it’s on track to distribute 540 million books globally by the end of 2019 through the “Happy Meal Readers” program introduced in 2018.
But for now, it’s all about that nostalgia.
Mitchell declined to say how many of each item will be distributed worldwide. “We want to maximize the excitement and the rarity value of these toys,” he says. “We are anticipating very, very high levels of demand.”
There are 15 toys being distributed globally, and the U.S. gets two additional Disney items that won’t be available in other countries, a “101 Dalmatians” item from 1997 and a Mickey’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice figure from 2002.
The promotion gives McDonald’s a chance to lure diners who, at least in the U.S., are expected to be busy heading to Popeyes to try its popular chicken sandwich when it returns in early November. McDonald’s has been posting sales gains in the United States, but visits to its restaurants continued to decline in the latest quarter. The U.S. promotion is set to run Nov. 7 through Nov. 11, McDonald’s said.
The Happy Meal debuted in the U.S. in June 1979 as the "Circus Wagon Happy Meal" and hit international markets starting in 1982. The world’s largest restaurant chain has updated the food in the Happy Meal in recent years to appeal to pickier parents, including eliminating artificial preservatives from chicken nuggets, adding apple slices and yogurt as side items, and reducing the number of fries that come with the meal. Soda was eliminated from the menu board description and ads for the Happy Meal back in 2013, prompting more people to order them with milk.
McDonald’s says it worked with longtime PR agency Golin on the project, along with Framestore on visual effects, The Marketing Store on toy operations and logistics, and Turner Duckworth on visual design.
CORRECTION: A prior version of this story incorrectly stated that McDonald's was on track to give away 500,000 books this year. McDonald's misstated the figure.