60 Retro Photographs That Show What McDonald’s Was Like In The 1980s And 1990s

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Remember when you were a kid, and McDonald’s was the most exciting place to visit? It wasn’t all about the Big Macs either. No, there was something special about the fast-food restaurant that went way beyond the burgers. But what was it? Well, these 60 images will bring the early years of McDonald’s right back to life – and you’ll be desperate to take a trip to the Golden Arches after reading this.

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60. Toys transformed

Back when Transformers were must-have toys for youngsters, McDonald’s introduced its own version of the robots that could ingeniously morph into other objects. Except, of course, Changeables didn’t become cars: they turned into burgers and fries. From 1987 onwards, the company put “McRobots” in Happy Meals, and mini munchers could collect six in the first offering.

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59. Relaxing with Ronald

Ronald McDonald is instantly recognizable as the face of the burger giant. And, of course, he’s positioned as friendly and approachable. Still, we do wonder just how many kids wanted to sit next to the slightly alarming lifesize clown figures that you’d sometimes find sitting on benches in McDonald’s restaurants.

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58. Looking good

The Golden Arches are the distinctive symbol of the McDonald’s franchise. But they haven’t always been around. Before 1968 a less familiar version of the arches was in use. And even though the logo changed in that year, the décor didn’t. It wouldn’t be until 1974 that the restaurants altered their signs and their look.

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57. Playgrounds abounded

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The playgrounds that the McDonaldland concept spawned were lavish, sprawling arenas of fun, featuring slides and ballpits and all sorts of climbing frames – as well as the hamburger jail. The PlayLands helped business boom, too, as they provided safe play areas for kids. Eventually, though, much of the play equipment was moved indoors – particularly in places where the weather isn’t so good. And these days, the playgrounds are vanishing altogether.

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56. Seeing the sizzle

The early McDonald’s restaurants offered more than a burger: they also provided entertainment. This was in the form of the kitchen staff, whom you could watch as they put your food together. That was thanks to massive windows in stores, which allowed McDonald’s to show off its gleaming kitchens to hungry diners.

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55. Collectible glasses

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Glassware that you can collect was a real trend at fast-food restaurants from at least the 1970s. These specialty dispensers would sometimes be issued in connection with films. Occasionally, though, they would simply feature characters connected with the eatery. However, the concept reached its peak when McDonald’s released intricately carved mugs made from frosted glass to promote the movie Batman Forever in 1995. And these glasses were – at the very least – a novel way to enjoy your large Coke.

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54. Puppets to play with

Curiously, the McDonald’s finger puppet range would be limited. Not in the amounts given away: after all, most of us probably have one somewhere in the attic. Rather, the limitation came in the form of the number of characters featured. There were only two: Ronald McDonald and the Hamburglar. We do question whether anyone actually played with these slightly sinister toys, though.

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53. The Fry Kids were sizzling hot

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What says fries more clearly than brightly colored pom-poms with theft in their hearts? Well, the strange characters spent several surreal advertisements attempting to hijack Ronald McDonald’s potato snacks, leaving the clown urging viewers to “keep your eyes on your fries.” So, maybe the madness made a certain sort of sense after all.

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52. When medals meant Macs

For the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, McDonald’s ran a campaign under the slogan, “If the U.S. wins, you win.” When you bought something from McDonald’s, you’d get a scratchcard that would reveal a category. And if an American won a medal in that category, you’d get a prize, too – with Big Macs for golds. But the burger giant didn’t count on the Soviet boycott, so this promotion ended up costing them big bucks.

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51. Spot the puppies

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When McDonald’s chose to celebrate 1996 smash-hit movie 101 Dalmatians, it was natural that it should create more than a hundred toys. That way, you could enjoy a plethora of pretend pets. Now that’s a smart move to help encourage return visits – and those who got the whole set can now sell it for as much as $200.

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50. The fries were phenomenal

In the 1980s many thought McDonald’s fries were amazing – kept in the fryer until they were golden and delicious. But in the 1990s something changed: the delicious snacks were never quite the same again. It turns out that in 1992 the fast-food purveyor switched its frying medium from tallow to vegetable oil. So, you’re not imagining a change in taste!

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49. Apple pies grew on trees

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When you strolled through the weird wonderland that was the in-store McDonaldland, your eye might have been attracted to the greenery that adorned it. But when you looked more closely, you’d have seen that these trees were festooned with a fruit that you don’t see every day. Yes, it turned out that apple pies really did grow on trees – in McDonald’s, at least.

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48. This toy’s fur real

No toy is more likely to put a chill into those of a certain age than the Furby. Many can remember the ghostly voice of the furry toy speaking out in the dark of night. Terrifying stuff, but the upside was that they were cute enough to be massively popular. And to this day, they are worth a pretty penny: a set of eight went for more than $900 online not too long ago.

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47. More meal for your money

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Nowadays, you can’t get much for a dollar. But in 1985 you could buy two hamburgers at the Golden Arches for a single buck. The incredibly low prices were one of the main attractions for cash-strapped parents in the 1980s, who could feed the family cheaply at the burger joint.

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46. No job for a lady

Early fast-food joints delighted in employing the carhop: a young lady who charmed drivers who came to grab a burger. But the McDonald brothers Richard and Maurice disapproved, thinking that they attracted the wrong element. So in its early days, McDonald’s didn’t employ women, period. It didn’t change policy until the mid-1960s, but even then it’s alleged that initially only women with flat chests were considered by the apparently sexist burger bars.

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45. Mayor McCheese for president!

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With a head made of cheeseburger, Mayor McCheese was, as the name suggests, the lead authority figure in McDonaldland. Costumed with the sash of a diplomat and a top hat, he often appeared in commercials. However, a lawsuit in the 1970s that accused him of being far too similar to H.R. Pufnstuf meant the character became less visible. Curiously, that move boosted his popularity big-time, with people even signing petitions demanding his return.

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44. Hot Wheels put us in a spin

With nearly half a billion Hot Wheels sold each year, the brightly-colored cars are the world’s most popular toy. So, it’s not a huge surprise that they are included in Happy Meals today. But what might be more shocking is that they have been McDonald’s giveaways since 1983 – and haven’t missed a year since.

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43. Making a meal of it

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Before the 1970s McDonald’s didn’t have a “meal” of any kind. But in 1971 it introduced “The Big Meal.” Now you could get a burger, fries and a soda for a low price. It would still be some time before such things as Happy Meals and Value Meals would come into being, though.

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42. Munchkins went mad for McNuggets

Despite the (long-debunked) rumors that Chicken McNuggets are made of pink slime, the tasty treats remain a huge favorite with kids. But their delight in the chicken chunks today is nothing compared to the excitement that the golden blobs inspired back in 1983 – the year they were first introduced. Kids loved them so much that restaurants actually struggled to keep up with demand.

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41. Kids dined in their own world

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Who needs their mom and dad telling them off for showing bad manners at the dinner table? Not kids at a 1980s McDonald’s, that’s for sure. Indeed, these lucky tots had their own separate dining area, decorated with the McDonaldland motifs that they loved. Of course, adults may also have enjoyed the opportunity to eat in peace…

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40. Muppets on the move

In 1981 the Muppets franchise released the fun frolics of The Great Muppet Caper. This film was special not only because it was the only Muppet movie of which Jim Henson took charge. It was also thought worthy of being enshrined in collectible glassware, so Happy Meal munchers could enjoy Kermit on a bike even more.

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39. The Hamburglar had a makeover

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When The Hamburglar first came into being in the 1970s, he resembled a troll and could only speak in garbled fragments. He even had a different name: “The Lone Jogger.” But during the 1980s he became a much more friendly face, although his larceny of burgers didn’t stop.

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38. Value for money was real

Before the Dollar Menu became a thing, the Value Pack was your route to a burger bargain. For $2.59 you could walk off with a Big Mac, supersize fries and a Coke – all handily packaged a box. And the long-gone pricing structure has many fans yearning for the lost concept of a genuine bargain. After all, as a commenter on a Value Meal commercial on YouTube recently put it, “These days, you have to take out a federal loan to buy a value meal.”

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37. A-maze-ing fun was had by all

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Perhaps McDonald’s does not offer the healthiest of foods, but kids in the 1980s and 1990s were able to work off the calories in the extensive PlayPlaces. For instance, youngsters could weave their way through a multicolored maze that seemed never-ending – before, perhaps to their surprise, it came to a fun-filled halt, as they fell in a big pit full of balls.

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36. Uniforms might start showing your age

Here’s a party trick that you might like to try out. Ask the person you’re talking to if they can close their eyes and imagine buying a Big Mac as a teen. What does the server look like? If the answer comes back that they’re wearing a striped button-up patterned in red and white with a big collar, then they’re early ’80s. If they say, however, their server is attired in a red polo shirt that’s emblazoned with a few chest stripes and a white collar, then they’re late ’80s.

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35. Muppet magic continues

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What could be cuter than the Muppets? Mini Muppets! The eternally popular puppets could be found in the 1990s in the form of babies. Yes, McDonald’s gave away miniature Muppets in Happy Meals and hoped that some of the show’s enormous drawing power would help it to sell burgers to hungry youngsters. And they came with wheels, too.

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34. McPizza we didn’t believa

McDonald’s is, of course, a byword for burgers. But do you remember when it decided to branch out into pizzas? In the 1980s the chain took on the more established restaurants and brought out its own version of the pie. It wasn’t a huge success, but devoted fans did keep it on some menus until 2017.

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33. Bear necessities with your meal

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Yogi Bear had his ups and downs as a character, with not everything he appeared in proving a hit. Although the bear himself was much loved, Yo Yogi was not. However, toys that were once issued to support the show are much more to people’s liking, fetching $100 each on the collectors’ market.

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32. Bumping butts on burgers

McDonald’s marketing game was at its peak in the 1980s and 1990s, and it aimed its effort squarely at kids. Not only could you play with characters such as Grimace, but when you sat down to eat, the chairs themselves had a playful motif. In some restaurants, burger seats were the kids’ resting place of choice.

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31. Grabbing a Gadget

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Inspector Gadget was the hero of an incredibly popular series of cartoons that showed throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. The character was half man, half, erm, gadget, which had enormous appeal to kids. And as time goes by, also to collectors, who will pay up to $350 to get their hands on a figurine of the detective.

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30. Birthdays were the best

Anyone who was a kid in the late ’80s probably spent many a birthday party in a PlayPlace. Not only could you vanish into the maze of pipework, only to be seen when you slid down from it, but you could also play in the ball pit. And best of all, it was Happy Meals all round, so everyone went home with a birthday gift.

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29. Mac Tonight the soulful delight

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In 1986 a strange character crept into view in ads for the burger chain’s late-night menu. With a moon head, sunglasses and an uncanny ability to summon jazz notes from a piano, Mac Tonight certainly had a ton of soul. However, because he was apparently based on the song “Mack the Knife,” McDonald’s found itself on the end of a lawsuit that spelled the demise of Mac in 1989.

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28. Game for anything?

McDonald’s and Nintendo have been partners for a long time. In the 2010s, for instance, the fast-food corporation used the Ninendo DS to train their workers, but back in the 1980s some restaurants featured the then-state-of-the-art Nintendo 64. So kids who had tired of the indoor gym and slides could enjoy a few games of Super Mario Bros. instead.

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27. Women on the wing

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One thing that was very noticeable about early McDonaldland was how masculine it felt. But when McDonald’s wanted a character to advertise its breakfast menu, who better than Birdie the Early Bird? And the cute cartoon who enticed viewers to fill up on Egg McMuffins happily led the way for more female characters in the franchise.

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26. McNuggets on a budget

Today’s commercials don’t come cheap, as exciting animations need to be built on computers. But back in the 1980s the fast-food giant didn’t throw money away on ads, so they tended to look very much less polished. The McNugget spots, for instance, featured loveable characters that looked like a child had been let loose with a pot of glue, but they had a charm that means that they’re still remembered today.

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25. The Flintstones sent kids to wonderland

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These days, refillable cups are all the rage; many of us get our coffee in reusable beakers. In the 1980s, however, we were often much less environmentally conscious – that is, except for kids who drank at McDonald’s. They liked to cart the cup home when they’d finished with their soda, because the drinking vessel was decorated with cartoons – with the Flintstones motif being a particular favorite.

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24. Take a break

Superstar Barry Manilow featured in commercials for the burger giant in the early 1970s, singing “You Deserve A Break Today.” Despite what was commonly believed, Manilow didn’t write the song. It struck a chord, however, becoming a popular slogan for many years. It would finally be replaced by the perhaps-less-catchy “Nobody can do it like McDonald’s can” in 1983.

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23. Spud you like

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Enduring favorites for kids, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head are heaps of fun to dress and remodel. But did you know that they had offspring? Yes, in 1987 Happy Meals featured small versions of the Potato Head family. And Mom and Dad Tater had been busy: there were 12 of the Potato Kids.

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22. Grimace got a makeover

The secret of a good fictional beast designed to entertain kids is that it shouldn’t give them nightmares. After all, no one’s really terrified of the Cookie Monster. But the 1970s’ Grimace was extremely scary, equipped as he was with four arms and scales. So it’s perhaps just as well that he got made over twice in the 1980s until he was something a bit more cuddly.

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21. Hot food that was cool

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The problem with the hamburger version of the B.L.T. is that the heat of the burger and the cold of the salad and mayo just don’t mix well. So the boffins at McDonald’s came up with the McDLT, which packaged them separately. The idea was abandoned in the 1990s, though, thanks to better awareness of how damaging polystyrene can be to the environment.

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20. Wash while you wait

In the 1960s McDonald’s offered an added extra when you drove through for food. When you approached, a worker would spring out and start washing your windscreen. This, the fast-food franchise suggested, would make driving safer. However, drivers didn’t feel that their windshields were too dirty to see through, and the service didn’t catch on.

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19. Racing into Mickey’s magical Birthdayland

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In 1988 when Mickey Mouse hit his 60th birthday, McDonald’s marked the event by releasing a line of toys that were based on Mickey’s Playhouse characters. The toys were pullback racers that could do a range of stunts. But slightly bizarrely, unlike the other characters, Donald Duck didn’t have a car: he drove a train instead.

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18. The Professor promoted Buddies

Until 1983 The Professor was a very marginal character in the McDonaldland universe – not even getting to speak in ads very often. But in that year, he sprang into action with the McNuggets launch. The scientist brought the McNuggets to life and joined them in a string of McNugget Buddies commercials.

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17. These glasses have character

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On top of the glasses released to promote movies, there were also drinking vessels that featured characters closer to home. Yes, McDonaldland did not just provide inspiration for playgrounds. Its inhabitants also found their way onto special glassware. There were six tumblers that showed off the likes of Mayor McCheese and Grimace.

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16. Singing for your supper

When 13-year-old Scotty Landreth found a flexidisc among some old newspapers that he was using for kindling, he couldn’t have imagined that it would score him a million dollars. But it did: it was one of 80 million discs released as part of a promotion, and it was the winning one.

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15. Slurping from Snoopy sippers

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McDonald’s dipped its toes into the glassware business in the 1970s, but it really took off in 1983. It was then that you could get a Camp Snoopy glass cheap with a meal. And each week McDonald’s offered a new glass, meaning collectors had to eat at the burger chain for five weeks straight to swipe the whole set.

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14. Munching on McDonald’s crunch

You may not associate McDonald’s with cookies, but there did use to be a bunch of them based on McDonaldland. For anyone out there who does remember them and perhaps misses the munch, we have some good news. A poster on Reddit informs us that the Homekist brand of Lemon Creme sandwich cookies tastes identical to the McDonald’s treats.

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13. Garfield glasses rocked

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Snoopy wasn’t the only character from the world of comics to feature on McDonald’s glassware, though. For just 69 cents, you see, from 1987 you could snap up a Garfield piece – and many did. It was so impressive that the cat himself described his face as “the most wanted mug in America” in a commercial.

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12. Standing room only

Early 1960s customers did not go down to the local McDonald’s and take a seat, because the restaurants mostly did not have them. In fact, most locations were takeaway only. You could only find somewhere to sit after 1962, when a Denver, Colorado site became the first to put in stools.

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11. Beverages by the barrel

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McDonald’s meals come with a drink, of course, and the standard is a cool Coke. But back in the 1980s you could get an “orange drink” that some found delicious. You’d even see it in large yellow barrels at school fairs or track meets. These days, though, the beverage is no longer available.

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10. Indestructible packaging

Thirty years ago, the environment wasn’t as widespread a concern as it is today. So it didn’t seem like a bad idea to package burgers in polystyrene. However, the material is close to indestructible, so the firm agreed to phase out its old-style boxes for the more environmentally-conscious paper packaging that is so familiar today.

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9. Roaring good times with dinosaurs

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There is possibly no greater joy for a small child than scaring your mom with a dinosaur puppet on your hand. And McDonald’s facilitated the fun by popping frighteningly real dino heads into Happy Meals. This was a tie-in for a 2000 film, but we’re stretching the 1990s by a year – because who doesn’t love dinosaurs?

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8. A powerful treat

Children of the 1990s will need no introduction to the Power Rangers. And indeed they are still going strong to day, so appealing are the superhero teens to youngsters. The burger franchise popped figurines into Happy Meals, and to this day they’re popular with collectors. An individual Power Ranger could scoop you $35.

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7. Muppet Babies built for speed

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Those who were kids in the 1980s (and, let’s be honest, many who were a bit older back then) loved The Muppet Show. And the TV program’s knockabout puppets provided some of the most popular Happy Meal toys. The Muppet Babies all came aboard their own interchangeable mode of transport – a rocking horse, a car, a skateboard and a trike – perfect for racing against each other.

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6. Berenstain Bears burst with fun

Kids love to collect, but when McDonald’s put Berenstain Bears in Happy Meals, the fun seemed like it would end quickly. There were only four toy figures: Papa, Mama, Sister and Brother. But the collectors weren’t daunted by the lack of variety. Instead, they simply racked up huge gangs of the same figurines.

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5. Anyone for breakfast?

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What’s breakfast without the Egg McMuffin? Well, before 1972 no one knew what it was like with the tasty treat. It was then that the burger giants branched out into breakfast in the form of the McMuffin. A few years later it would change the shape of the hash brown forever when the distinctive patty came into being.

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4. Go to (hamburger) jail

Where else would Officer Big Mac put the Hamburglar but in the hamburger jail? These delectable-looking jails were a staple of playgrounds that were based on the McDonaldland concept, which the firm introduced in the 1970s. These jails were debuted in 1970s commercials, but their successors continued all the way through to 2003. And McDonaldland was – as you might expect – a magical land, filled with a whole host of burger-based characters. Accordingly, restaurants had playgrounds that featured elements of McDonaldland. Today, this fanciful landscape is gone, but you still see one of the leading characters from time to time: one Ronald McDonald.

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3. No bad boys welcomed

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Owner Ray Kroc did not like a bad boy. In fact, he considered them terrible for a family business. Consequently, he forbade jukeboxes, phone booths and cigarette machines from restaurants. Jukeboxes were particularly unwelcome – along with carhops and tipping, they were part of the three big nos for Kroc.

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2. Buckets of fun for Halloween

There have been many giveaways in Happy Meals that kids have loved, but one stands out as the greatest: the Halloween pails. There were actually three of them, although we’re not sure that anyone carried all three at once. They looked close enough to be triplets, but each had its own name: McBoo, McPunk’n and McGoblin.

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1. The bountiful joy of Happy Meals

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McDonald’s didn’t invent the idea of putting toys into children’s food: cereals had been doing that for years. But in 1979 it did begin packaging a burger, fries and drink in a special box with a toy. Thus the Happy Meal was born, and of course 1980s and 1990s kids knew and loved them – just like youngsters still do today.

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