Adult Happy Meal Rollout Leaves Much to Grimace About

Earlier this month, the fine folks at McDonald’s rolled out a Happy Meal aimed at adults called the Cactus Plant Flea Market Box in honor of the company that they partnered with to bring the vision to life.

In full disclosure, during my adult life I have ordered many Happy Meals. I could lie and say that those Happy Meals were all ordered as research for this column, but the reality is that ever since my undergrad days at the University of Central Florida I have enjoyed an occasional Happy Meal.

Motivations for getting a Happy Meal range from when just wanting a quick and cheap snack, to wanting to feel a little like a kid again with a chocolate milk and some tiny fries.

During my adult life I have ordered many Happy Meals. I could lie and say that those Happy Meals were all ordered as research for this column, but the reality is that ever since my undergrad days at UCF, I have enjoyed an occasional Happy Meal. Recently, the people at McDonalds decided that they had had enough with the kid stuff to the point of rolling out an adult version of the happy meal with more food and freakier looking toys.
Photo R. Anderson

So, I really never saw the need to differentiate between a kid’s version of a Happy Meal and an adult version.

After all, at the end of the day, a cheeseburger is a cheeseburger no matter how you wrap it in yellow paper.

The people at McDonald’s however do see a need to target different demographics with their boxed meals as evidenced by the 2001 rollout of the Mighty Kids Meal. For those who may not recall, the Mighty Kids Meal was for those discerning youth who considered themselves too old for a Happy Meal, yet not quite ready to take the plunge and order off of the adult menu just yet.

Which brings us smack dab to the waning months of 2022 and the rollout of an adult version of a Happy Meal.

Putting my Ad/PR minor from UCF to use, while also proving that I did more than just eat Happy Meals as an undergrad, (I also took part in all you can eat pork Tuesdays at Sonny’s).

Still, undergraduate eating habits aside, I can imagine what the brain trust at McHeadquarters was thinking as they brought the idea of an adult Happy Meal to life.

Wearing my marketing hat for a bit, I am guessing one of the interns came to a meeting McCafe iced coffee in hand and said, “you know, the last couple of years have been like a real-life poop emoji, we should do something to make our customers feel better, while also increasing profits during the third quarter.”

Then, an older, wiser Generation X marketing person stood up, wiped the cheeseburgers crumbs off of their tie and likely said, “back when I was young, I often found my happy place inside a cardboard box filled with a hamburger, French fries and a toy. We should try to recreate that magic again, but fill them with toys for adults instead.”

Of course, in certain circles the term “adult toys” has an entirely different meaning, but that is beside the point. The point is, on paper the idea of an adult Happy Meal seemed like a can’t fail slam dunk dripping with nostalgia and carbs crammed inside a cardboard box.

Sadly, the reality of the rollout was anything but smooth.

The McDonalds near the Johnson Space Center recently relocated and left its McPlayplace behind. For years, McDonalds has been on a mission to try to seem more adult as the playgrounds that were once a staple of the stores have been replaced with coffee bars and dual drive thru lanes. Therefore, it was only a matter of time before they would try to lean on both nostalgia and practicality with an Adult Happy Meal that tried to honor the past, but with less germ-infested ball pits. Unfortunately, as the old space saying goes,

For starters, the four-eyed version of classic characters from the Ronald McDonald McUniverse made me grimace like someone had hamburglared away a piece of my childhood. I was so not lovin’ it.

If the ice cream machine was ever working at my local McDonald’s, it would take many a McFlurry to try to erase the image out of my mind of the four eyed version of classic characters.

While I can accept that the original concept of Grimace included two sets of arms, I am still trying to get over the fact that a McDonald’s manager made waves last year when he stated that Grimace was designed to be an enormous taste bud.

How dare they tarnish my memories of the jolly purple sidekick further by turning him into a four-eyed purple vision of horror making people think they are seeing double. I don’t even get me started on the nightmares that a four-eyed clown can induce.

Still, the design of the toys did not dissuade people from wanting them. People descended upon McDonald’s like a swarm of angry murder hornets seeking sweet nectar from an endangered cactus flower.

So many people came, that the worker bees at McDonald’s took to social media to implore them to stop coming to the restaurants because making all of those adult Happy Meals was creating a hardship for them.

Long ago, I decided that I enjoyed eating food too much to ever work in a restaurant. I wanted to remain blissfully ignorant about what was or wasn’t done to my food between the time I ordered it, and the time I ate it.

So, I do not have a frame of reference related to the complaints from the staff of McDonald’s pertaining to the workload that the promotion caused them.

Still, when your job is literally to make food, and someone orders something off of your menu, you don’t get to blame the customer, or say don’t order something because it is hard to make.

That would be like me saying, “writing is hard, so don’t read my words, in order that I don’t have to string them into sentences anymore.”

My job is to write and give people something to read.

A restaurant’s job is to make food people can eat.

A fast-food restaurant’s job is to make the food rapidly.

Of course, part of the disdain from the workforce involves certain people over indulging and making huge orders. Many of these orders come from collectors hoping to stock up on the toys in order to sell them on secondary market sites.

And even as Darrell Hammond’s Sean Connery once told Will Ferrell’s Alex Trebek that he was sitting on a gold mine, I never got a Happy Meal because I thought the toy inside would fund my retirement. I got the Happy Meal because I wanted it.

Unfortunately, that is not always the case.

To get a glimpse of how ga ga gy people can go for McSwag, consider the cautionary tale of the Beanie Baby craze of the mid to late 1990s. Never one to miss a craze, McDonald’s placed mini Beanie Babies in Happy Meals.

People were so confident that Beanie Babies would fund their dreams that they stockpiled them with plans of selling them for huge profits later.

Fast forward from the nineties to the 21st century and we see another example of good intentions going awry under the arches of gold.

Never one to miss out on a craze, McDonald’s placed mini beanie babies in Happy Meals in the late 1990s. People were so confident that the Beanie Baby would fund their dreams that they stockpiled them with plans of selling them for huge profits later. This lone beanie baby from that era has been collecting dust on various shelves in my office for over 20 years and others like it are currently listed online for an average of $5 which could barely buy a Happy Meal yet alone fund an entire retirement.
Photo R. Anderson

Back in 2010, McDonald’s recalled 12 million Shrek movie character drinking glasses because the paint on the glasses contained the toxic metal cadmium.

Of course, the recall only made the demand for the bootleg glasses distributed pre-recall even more valuable.

I would not be doing my job as a respected journalist if I did not pause for a moment and say, in the spirit of don’t try this at home, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, aka OSHHA, states that exposure to cadmium can lead to a variety of adverse health effects including cancer. Acute inhalation exposure (high levels over a short period of time) to cadmium can result in flu-like symptoms (chills, fever, and muscle pain) and can damage the lungs. Chronic exposure (low level over an extended period of time) can result in kidney, bone and lung disease.

With that in mind, I suppose the current shortage of retro four-eyed McToys does prevent people from getting ill from any adverse chemicals in their construction. After all, you cannot get sick if you don’t touch it. (Excuse me while I pause for a brief interlude to picture MC Hammer dancing and saying, “You Can’t Touch this.”)

To be fair, I am in no way suggesting that the current slate of toys is dangerous or cancer causing. I am sure that the Ronald McBrain Trust learned their lesson from the Shrek glasses and only source their toys and food from organically and ethically sourced vendors who are dedicated to environmental stewardship.

I cannot speak for their food being good for the environment based on the many tales of decades old French fries being found virtually in the same condition as the day they were deep fried in flavor juice.

However, McDonald’s announced in 2021 that they plan to drastically reduce their use of plastic by2025 by replacing the 1 billion children’s toys they sell annually with cardboard or recycled plant-based plastics.

That brings us back to the current four-eyed slap in my childhood’s face that is the new re-imagination of classic characters from the McUniverse.

You can have your four-eyed Ronald, Grimace and Hamburglar. As for me, I shall continue to honor the two-eyed versions of the classic characters with all of the saturated fatty goodness I remember. Although I suppose the next adult themed Happy Meal might be the Doogie Howser retro glucose monitor and EKG kit at this rate.

Sometimes one just needs to leave well enough alone and not try to keep reinventing the wheel, or try to be hip. People don’t go to McDonald’s to be hip. They go there for a quick and somewhat inexpensive meal that occasionally comes in a box with a toy and a milk.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I am off to put on my protective gloves so I can dust my cadmium laced Shrek glasses.

Copyright 2022 R. Anderson

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