1980s McDonald’s Toys that Changed Your Life and Burgers Forever

Things were pretty easy for kids looking to drum up a trip to a fast food joint in the 1980s — you just pestered the piss out of your parents ’til they took you to McDonald’s to secure some of those sweet Happy Meal toys.

Before the advent of the Happy Meal in 1979, though, things were tougher. I mean, fast food was a rare treat, and then you had to decide …

Did you want Burger Chef (and a Fun Meal)? Burger King? Long John Silvers, for gosh sake?

McDonald’s wasn’t the slam dunk it would become later on.

Once those little Golden-Arch-adorned boxes hit the airwaves, though, it was game over.

Here then, are ten 1980s McDonald’s toys — one for each year — that helped turn the tide in the burger wars.

1980 happy meal box

Styro-Gliders (1980)

What kid doesn’t love to make paper airplanes?

Whether it’s to disrupt your classroom or to see if you can make a plane that flies farther than the one your brother or dad or best friend made, hand-folded fliers are a time-honored tradition among bored kids.

But it’s no mean feat to build a paper airplane that actually performs to any appreciable degree — that is, one that flies straight, flies far, doesn’t flame out.

You didn’t have to worry about any of that with the Happy Meal Styro-Gliders, though, because they were precisely engineered for optimal performance.

All you had to do was pop the wings and body out of the Styrofoam holder and slide them together without tearing or breaking either one.

Then you could fling the thing across the restaurant and watch Ronald or the Golden Arches buzz into the blue hairs near the front of the joint, sipping their coffee.

And, since the gliders were made out of the same stuff as the food containers — and maybe the food — they were ever-so appetizing, building your enthusiasm to eat even more.

Dinosaur Days Rubber Figures (1981)

Kids love dinosaurs. It’s a simple fact of life.

In fact, when I was in grade school, I was convinced I was going to be a paleontologist and bring some dinos back to life.

I wasn’t alone, either, as a good half of my class had similar aspirations.

You could see this obsession reflected in the toys of our day, too, from plastic army-man-type adventure set dedicated to the great lizards to copious children’s books about dinosaurs to those squishy dino erasers you could by in the school bookstore.

So when McDonald’s brought Dinosaur Days to their Happy Meals and included rubber three-inch long dinos, I was all over it.

Didn’t matter if it was a pink triceratops, a blue T-Rex, or an orange stegosaurus … I wanted a side of it with my hamburger.

happy meal dinosaur days (1981)

Playmobil Figures (1982)

Playmobil figures were sort of the Lego figs of our generation, only bigger … and better.

For one thing, they were more lifelike.

For another, they were bigger (see above).

And for another another, they touched on the fantasy worlds we had simmering in our heads without shoving some promotional message down our throats — we were going to be cowboys, doctors, firemen, vets, and Playmobil would help us work out all the details.

In 1982, Happy Meals brought us a set old west figures that included a Native American, a sheriff, a horse and saddle, an umbrella girl, and a farmer.

Sure, Shapen had to recall the deal because of a fear of small parts, but I can tell you that my parents never once choked on one of these babies.

Hot Wheels (1983)

Hot Wheels cars belong in the toy Hall of Fame, and they’re in my top 10 — probably top 5 — toys of all time.

These things let you “drive” any vehicle you wanted, including some you couldn’t have even imagined on your own.

Hot Wheels could imagine them, though.

And they could include them in Happy Meals, too, once they hooked up with McDonald’s.

I can’t say for certain if I managed to “COLLECT ALL 14!” as the ads implored me to do, but I gave it a good shot.

Ronald McDonald Cloth Doll (1984)

I have mixed feelings about the Ronald McDonald cloth doll issued in Happy Meals during the election/Olympic/leap year of 1984.

On the one hand, it’s big(ish) and bright, with the standard yellow jumpsuit, red-and-white-striped sleeves, red shoes, and Ronald face.

On the other hand, it’s a freaking cloth doll that’s basically two-dimensional and immovable.

And it’s a clown. One that just stares at you with that fixed smile. Waiting. For something.

Creepy as Hell, in other words.

On balance, though, I think you had to have it if you were a kid who ate Happy Meals in the 1980s.

Ronald McDonald Cloth Doll (1984)

Pullback Race Cars (1985)

Yep, more vehicles.

I’m a dude who grew up in an era rife with muscle cars and future mechanics, so what can I say.

Besides, these little deals are the ones that wind up when you pull them backwards across the floor, then race forward when you let them go.

Cool.

Only slightly creepy if you’re on the other end, watching Ronald, Big Mac, Hamburglar, and Birdie speed toward you.

Pullback Race Cars (1985)

Stompers 4×4 (1986)

When they first came out, Stompers were the most awesome toy ever.

I mean …

They were trucks …

They were toys …

They had foam tires that you could pull off and on …

They could climb over anything (they couldn’t, but the commercials said they could) …

They smelled like Vicks 44 when they got hot.

Never mind they ate batteries like a vegan left alone in a bologna factory. Stompers were the bomb.

Stompers in Happy Meals? Bomb squared!

Muppet Babies (1987)

There are few better memories from my childhood than waking up on Saturday morning, grabbing a bowl of sugar “cereal,” and plopping down in front of the tube to watch cartoons.

I know millions of Generation Xers feel the same way.

But as the decade was rounding to a close, you could already feel the sheen starting to fade from our ‘toons.

I don’t know … maybe it’s just that I was getting older, but I don’t think so. The Golden Era was slipping away.

One of the newer shows that held things together for awhile was Muppet Babies, and I watched them faithfully for as long as I could find them.

They made pretty good Happy Meal toys, too, especially when you consider they came with their own vehicles (yep, more wheel obsession).

McNugget Buddies (1988)

By 1988, my Happy Meal days were over until I had kids of my own.

That doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the baubles of the day, though.

And, as these things go, the McNugget Buddies seem pretty solid.

Sure, they’re hard plastic, but they look kinda cuddly otherwise. And they run a wide range of professions, inspiring kids to become an old west cowboy, a popcorn vendor, or a snorkeler.

Inspirational, in a California Raisins sorta way.

Garfield Vehicles (1989)

As in 1988, the 1989 Happy Mean toys are pretty much out of my wheelhouse.

But, I do love Garfield.

And, as you’ve seen, vehicles of all sorts are pretty fun (unless they’re, like, running over you or something).

So, yeah, Garfield vehicles seem like something you’d have wanted if you were a little kid in ’89.

happy meal Garfield Vehicles (1989)
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