Wednesday, June 26, 2013

childhood obsessions: Happy Meal toys.

As a child of the 80s, I grew up in the heyday of the Happy Meal. McDonald’s began offering Happy Meals in 1979 (thanks for the fact, Wikipedia!), and they’ve been a pain in the ass for mothers everywhere ever since.

My mother was no exception. She responded unfavorably to whining and begging (though God knows we tried), so Happy Meals were a rare treat. Plus, like most young kids, we had too much damn stuff – the last thing we needed was another cheap plastic toy. That meant that getting a Happy Meal depended almost entirely upon the generosity of our grandparents.

Spending the day in Brookings with Grandma Lorraine and Grandpa Harvey was a HUGE treat, reserved mainly for the summertime. Mom would drop us off before she went to work, and our grandparents would haul us to swimming lessons – the only major obligation of the day. From there, the town was there for the taking. Grandma and Grandpa catered to our every whim, chauffeuring us around in their Buick Park Avenue (which I would later inherit. Remember that story?). We country kids got to experience (what we thought was) city life: we went to Walmart, the Brookings mall, the library, and the park. We got to watch cable TV and have SDSU ice cream in the afternoons.

Lunch was very nearly the most exciting part of our days in Brookings. Since we lived in the country (ten miles from the nearest restaurant, thirty from the nearest chain restaurant), eating out was a rare treat for us. Grandpa and Grandma graciously let us choose where to eat, and every single freaking time, we chose fast food. At the time, Brookings had a pretty decent fast food selection: McDonald’s, Burger King, Dairy Queen, Taco John’s, KFC, Hardee’s, and Subway were all up for grabs. (Brookings’ fast food options have expanded since then: now they have Qdoba, Arby’s, and Culver’s, too.) But did we ever choose anything besides McDonald’s and Burger King? No. No, we did not.

Believe it or not, we didn’t choose McDonald’s and Burger King because we liked to food. We were in it for the toys and the toys alone. If you recall from a recent story, I had a serious thing for Barbie dolls. Whenever McDonald’s had their Barbie/Hot Wheel Happy Meals, I was chomping at the bit to get my hands on one of them.
Or all of them.
I wish I knew how many tiny plastic McDonald’s Barbies I amassed over several years of dedicated Happy Meal-ing… actually, maybe I don’t want to know. Anyway, it was a lot. From a Dutch Barbie to zillions of bridal Barbies to an 80s Barbie on a bike, I had quite a collection.

Like I said, we didn’t go for the food, but McDonald’s was the clear winner when it came to lunch fare. For the first twelve years of my life, the only thing I’d ever had off the McDonald’s menu was the chicken nuggets. Burger King’s chicken paled in comparison to McDonald’s, and their fries? Don’t even get me started. But sometimes, sacrifices had to be made: when Burger King had Lion King toys and McDonald’s didn’t, my loyalty quickly changed.

While my Grandpa Harvey and Grandma Lorraine took us to fast food restaurants most often, my friend Allison and her parents were a close second. Whenever I spent the night at her house, her dad would drive us to Brookings for supper. You have McDonald’s people, and you have Burger King people: it’s a lot like Coke people and Pepsi people. Allison and her family were Burger King people, so that’s how I got my Lion King toy. I desperately wanted the plastic Nala with glow-in-the-dark eyes, but Scar was the toy I got.
Yep, this is my actual Scar toy.
Yes, I do tend to hang onto things.
I brought that little plastic lion to school every day, where I kept him in my desk until it was time for recess. I still have that Scar figurine somewhere, along with glow-in-the-dark Nala (my friend Sarah had gotten it in her Burger King meal, and since she already had one, she graciously passed her spare onto me).
This is not my Nala toy, but I can
always count on Google Images to
dig me up a good picture.
My fast food toy collection came almost exclusively from McDonald’s and Burger King (with the occasional toy from Dairy Queen). When we used to go camping, I would divide my toys between plastic ice cream buckets labeled “McDonald’s” and “Burger King” and tow the whole menagerie to the campground with me. Like you needed more evidence that I was a weird kid.

Those Happy Meal days couldn’t last forever. McDonald’s started throwing those Teenie Beanie Babies into their Happy Meals in 1996 (thanks again, Wikipedia!), and by that time, my enthusiasm for Happy Meals was starting to wane. But I stuck it out just a little longer for those tiny bean-filled toys.
These Teenie Beanie Babies have come for your soul.
I liked Beanie Babies, but I didn’t crave them with the rabidity of some of my contemporaries. I’d buy one or two with my allowance and ask for them for Christmas, but I certainly didn’t lose sleep over them. I didn’t pursue Beanie Baby Happy Meals with the fervor of my Lion King and Barbie Happy Meal days… I was getting too old for that crap.

So, after years of pestering any willing adult to take me to McDonald’s and choosing my meals based only on the toy inside, my Happy Meal days were over. However, my little Happy Meal toys are still floating around somewhere… most likely in the recesses of my parents’ attic. Should Mom and Dad ever make good on their threat to make me take all the stuff I still have at their house, I’m in serious trouble. I blame it on too many damn Happy Meal toys. 

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