VIRGINIA — Nine-year-old Jessie Gowell of Ely noticed something different at McDonald’s in Virginia on Friday while ordering her Happy Meal for lunch.
There were no toys in the display case.
She, along with her mom, Cory Gowell, and grandma, Tammy Przybylski, soon found out why.
The world’s largest restaurant chain by revenue — serving more than 69 million customers daily in more than 100 countries — is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Happy Meal by bringing back 17 of its popular toys from the last four decades.
The promotion started Nov. 7 and runs through Monday.
Each Happy Meal contains a “surprise” toy in opaque wrapping, rather than the usual clear packaging, and reveals what year the toy was originally introduced.
Thus, no hints are given by displaying the items at the counter.
According to McDonald’s, the retro toys aim to create a bonding experience between children and parents, who often already reminisce about Happy Meals from their childhood.
Throw in some vintage toys, and the fond memories amplify.
That appeared to be the case as Gowell — just as anxiously as Jessie — awaited delivery of her daughter’s meal to the table to see what toy would be inside the iconic red box with the Golden Arches handles.
Gowell said she remembers stopping often at the Virginia McDonald’s with her grandparents on their way to Duluth. The miniature Ty Beanie Babies were her favorite of the Mickey D’s children’s meal toys when she was young.
“We came here quite often just to get those,” she said.
Among the “surprise” toys are the Hamburger Changeable from 1989; Power Rangers (Hasbro) from 1995; My Little Pony (Hasbro) from 1998; Tamagotchi (Bandai) from 1998; Furby (Hasbro) from 1999; and Hello Kitty (Sanrio) from 2013.
And — for Beanie Baby enthusiasts like Gowell — Patti the Platypus from 1997.
Jessie always likes ordering Happy Meals “for their world-famous cheeseburgers,” smiled her mom.
But what’s the best part of a Happy Meal?
“The toy,” Jessie beamed.
Her favorite so far? “Pokemon.”
Globally, 1 billion Happy Meals are sold each year in more than 100 countries in 38,000-plus restaurants, states the company.
Today, roughly one in every four orders at McDonald’s includes a Happy Meal, according to retail data tracker Sense360.
Fridays seem to be when the most Happy Meals are sold, said Jonah Kirkpatrick, department manager at the Virginia McDonald’s. Halloween was also a popular Happy Meal day.
Kirkpatrick said that when he attended Hamburger University, a 130,000-square-foot McDonald’s training facility in Chicago, he perused the wall of Happy Meal toys, which displays every toy produced during the past four decades.
Many are now collector’s items.
“It brought back a lot of childhood memories,” he said.
His own favorites as a youngster were the Chicken McNugget characters. Three of those from 1988 are included in the “surprise” promotion: Cowboy McNugget, Fireman McNugget, and Mail Carrier McNugget.
The McNugget crew was inspired by the addition of McNuggets as a Happy Meal option in the mid-1980s.
The limited-edition 40th anniversary cast also features Grimace from 1990; Dino Happy Meal Box Changeable from 1991; McDonald’s Hot Wheels Thunderbird (Mattel) from 1993; and Space Jam Bugs Bunny (Warner Bros.) from 1996.
Exclusive to the United States in the retro toy 40-year Happy Meal collection are two Disney characters: 101 Dalmatians from 1997, and Sorcerer’s Apprentice Mickey from 2002.
The Circus Wagon Happy Meal, as it was originally known, launched in the United States in June 1979. It included a hamburger or cheeseburger, fries and cookies in the lunch pail-shaped container that continues today. The first box was decorated with comic-book style McDonald’s characters conversing in a circus wagon.
Early Happy Meal toys included a McDoodler stencil, McWrist wallet and a spinning top.
But the concept actually originated in Guatemala.
Yolanda Fernández de Cofiño, who began working with her husband who operated McDonald’s restaurants in the Central American country, created in the mid-1970s what she called “Menu Ronald” (or Ronald Menu), which offered a hamburger, small fries and a small sundae. The goal was to help mothers feed their children more effectively while at the restaurant.
The idea was eventually brought to the attention of McDonald’s management in Chicago, and the company gave the development of the product to Bob Bernstein, who then came up with the idea for the Happy Meal.
In recent years, as customers veered toward healthier eating habits, McDonald’s began revamping the Happy Meal. In 2012, the restaurant made french fries portions smaller and added apple slices as an option.
Happy Meals now come with side choices of fruit, fries, a Go-Gurt tube, and in some parts of the country, salads. Milk, juice, and bottled water are beverage selections along with soft drinks.
The company said that 3.4 billion fruit, low-fat dairy and water items have been served in Happy Meals in the United States since 2013.
Starting next year, McDonald’s will add a new reduced-sugar and low-fat chocolate milk option. It has 25% less sugar compared to the previous version.
Jessie and her family’s meals arrive at the table.
The child wastes no time delving into the box containing a cheeseburger, french fries, and for dessert — “extra fries.”
But first things first — that Happy Meal toy.
“What is it?” wondered mom and grandma.
Jessie ripped through the packaging to reveal her surprise — Hamburgler, from 1995.
“I haven’t seen that in a long time,” Gowell said.
“It’s cool,” Jessie said, playing with the classic McDonald’s character for a while before unwrapping her burger.
“We will be coming back for another 40 (years),” Gowell said with a smile.
“I think it’s a great idea,” Kirkpatrick said of the “surprise” toys.
Toys that are, well, even a surprise to him.
He grinned with a hint of childlike excitement. “I’m interested to see what they all are,” he said.