The ’80s were a paradox if there ever was one: America was obsessed with aerobics and fitness, basically living in spandex leotards and legwarmers—yet McDonald’s was considered a perfectly reasonable thing to eat on a regular basis.
When we were kids, McDonald’s was more than just a restaurant: it was a place where you could have your best birthday party ever, where the Happy Meal toys flowed like Coke from the fountain, and where the world of McDonaldland somehow seemed like pure joy. It’s hard not to get nostalgic thinking back on these 30 McDonald’s facts all ’80s kids remember!
The fries tasted better.
Author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell was distraught by the realization that McDonald’s french fries didn’t taste as good as the fries of his youth, and so—in true Malcolm Gladwell form—he made a full podcast episode about it. The culprit? In 1992, McDonald’s changed the method of frying from using beef tallow to a generic vegetable oil—all under the misguided notion that the oil would be seen as more healthy. The switch disappointed french fry fans everywhere, and it left many pining for the rich and flavorful fries of yesteryear. So if you remember delicious McDonald’s fries in your 80s youth, you’re not misremembering them.
You got a lot of free McDonald’s during the Olympics.
“If the U.S. wins, you win.” This was the slogan McDonald’s cooked up for its ad campaign during the 1984 Olympic games in Los Angeles, as reported by The New York Times. The idea was that with every purchase, you’d get a scratch-off ticket that revealed a sporting category, and every time an American won a medal in that category, you’d win a prize: a gold medal meant a free Big Mac, a silver earned you french fries, and a bronze got you a Coke. The only catch? The Soviet Union boycotted the games that year after we had done the same to them during a previous Olympics in Moscow, and America swept the floor with what was left of the competition. The U.S. won, McDonald’s customers won, and McDonald’s lost more than twice the number of Big Macs they had budgeted for.
Chicken McNuggets were all the rage.
Sure, Chicken McNuggets still exist today, but they’re somewhat tainted by the idea that they’re made of pink slime—a debunked rumor that famously circulated on the internet some years ago. But 80’s kids remember how it felt when they first made their way into our collective consciousness: it was pure excitement. They were so popular when they hit restaurants in 1983 that chains almost immediately had supply issues. By the way, did you know that McNuggets come in four different shapes?
The prices were insanely low.
If you remember the price of a McDonald’s hamburger being outrageously low as a kid, your memory isn’t deceiving you. According to Insider, your average burger cost about 40 cents (with some wiggle room for regional fluctuation), and rose to only 62 cents by 1987. This left plenty of extra pocket change to cover your french fries and a drink—a steal by today’s standards.
McDonald’s tried to steal Pizza Hut’s thunder.
Maybe they were still riding high after the success of their newly-introduced McNuggets, or the advent of the Happy Meal. Maybe they were just getting too big for their britches. But in 1989, McDonald’s got it in its head that it could—and should—pull an eleventh-hour power play and get in the pizza game. Though they didn’t manage to convert as many Pizza Hut and Domino’s fans as they’d hoped, they did develop a small cult following that kept the item running at select chains until 2017! Sadly to say, the McPizza wasn’t the only failed McDonald’s menu item from the 1980s (remember the Chopped Beefsteak Sandwich?).
McDonald’s Changeables were the best Happy Meal toys.
When 80s kids take a stroll down memory lane to the golden years of Happy Meal toys, one series stands out as supremely iconic: McDonald’s Changeables. Released in 1987, these were plastic renditions of all of our favorite meals that transformed into robots, and in the third series that debuted in the ’90s, dinosaurs! Though they were of course free at the time, these days they’re still so beloved that they regularly fetch up to $50 a piece on eBay from devoted fans and collectors.
Hot Wheels also reigned supreme.
There’s something so comforting about knowing that Happy Meals have been giving out Hot Wheels since before many of us were born and that they continue to be released every year to this day. In 1983—for reference, that’s roughly 10 years before your parents finally started asking themselves whether it was worth it to get a dial-up internet hook up—the chain began releasing collectible car designs that sent kids everywhere into a frenzy.
The Hamburglar got a much-needed makeover.
The Hamburglar was an interesting character: his sole mission was to steal and hoard McDonald’s hamburgers, yet he remained a close friend of Ronald McDonald himself. When he was first created in the ’70s, he was a more troll-like character that spoke only gibberish and had goblin-like features. The company rather menacingly named him “The Lone Jogger.” But in the mid-’80s, they gave the character an image makeover, refining and humanizing his features, and renaming him with the more playful name he has today.
The value pack was the best deal around.
Before the advent of the Dollar Menu in the ’90s, there was the McDonald’s Value Pack. Starting in 1985, you could get a Big Mac, supersize fries, and a coke—packaged neatly in a box for just $2.59. The comments section for this Value Pack commercial is just brimming with old McDonald’s enthusiasts waxing nostalgic about the pricing of the good ol’ days—not to mention the option to “supersize!”
The uniforms were iconic.
Here’s a game that should help any McDonald’s history buff pinpoint your age: close your eyes, and picture yourself walking up to the counter of the McDonald’s of your childhood. What is the worker behind the register wearing? If it’s a striped red and white button-up with a large collar, chances are you’re an early 80’s kid. If instead, you imagine a red polo with a white collar and a few horizontal stripes across the chest, congratulations! You’re of relative youth and came of age in the late ’80s.
Mac Tonight was the most soulful mascot.
Remember Mac Tonight? He had a moon for a head, slick shades, and a gift for jazz piano, which he soulfully played by starlight to advertise the late night menu at McDonald’s beginning in 1986. Because the character and many of the advertisements were a play on “Mac the Knife,” McDonald’s was ultimately sued by the estate of Bobby Darin for illegally copying the style of the song—ending Mac Tonight’s run as a McDonald’s mascot in 1989.
Girls finally got a female McDonaldland character.
Just as Mac Tonight was rolled out to advertise the late night McDonald’s menu, Birdie the Early Bird was an ambassador of the Egg McMuffin and other early morning fares. But perhaps more importantly, and more memorably, Birdie was the first recognizably female character in the world of McDonaldland when she entered the scene in 1980.
RELATED: 100+ breakfast ideas to start your morning right.
The best birthdays were at McDonald’s Play Places.
Doesn’t matter who you are or what your childhood was like: if you grew up in the late ’80s, chances are you went to a birthday party—or dozens of them—at a McDonald’s PlayPlace. In 1987 the chain debuted the indoor jungle gyms, which had ball pits and Discovery Zone-type tubing to crawl through—so massive that once you went into the tube labyrinth your parents could only hope you’d resurface eventually at the bottom of some slide. You and your friends all got Happy Meals, and the toys made it feel like it was everyone’s birthday.
You couldn’t live without a Flintstones wonderland cup.
Because every kid’s idea of fun in the ’80s was drinking a soda and then taking the sticky plastic cup home in their backpacks, McDonald’s had a very successful run with their Wonderland Cups in 1989. These featured all of our cartoon favorites, including The Flintstones, Scooby Doo, The Jetsons, and Smurfs. These days in 2019, the Marie Kondos of the world might balk at hoarding cheesy plastic cups for over four decades, but you know what? They gave us joy back then, and they still do.
McNugget commercials were a low budget blast.
In the sleek world of today’s ad industry, our wildest ideas come alive convincingly with CGI animation—a far cry from the hot glued puppets and painfully cheesy jokes that used to fuel prime time advertisements in the ’80s. The execution of the McNuggets commercials may have looked like a middle schooler’s art project, but those characters still stick with us decades down the line: the cowboy nugget, the fireman nugget, and everyone’s favorite, the fanny-pack-wearing tennis star nugget. They put on circus acts, performed in rock bands, and challenged Ronald McDonald to basketball games so they could “dunk” (in barbecue sauce, of course). And you know what? They were fun.
The McDLT was ingenious.
The secret to the McDLT was not the recipe (a simple concoction of hamburger, lettuce, tomato and mayo) but the way the presentation preserved the temperature. As Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander explains in the 1985 burger’s ad campaign, it was key to “keep the hot side hot and the cool side cool.” The burger was served in a polystyrene packaging that separated the cool veggies from the hot meat until you were ready to chow down, but the whole idea fell by the wayside in the early 90’s, when people retaliated against such an environmentally-damaging container.
You needed the full collection of Snoopy glasses.
McDonald’s began selling promotional glassware beginning in the 1970s, but in 1983 it released a particularly popular line of Camp Snoopy glasses, which you could buy with a meal for a discounted price. They sold a different glass each week, so many customers made the pilgrimage to complete the set of five with the whole Peanuts gang. Today you can still buy the Camp Snoopy collection on Amazon, though it’ll cost you nearly $25 with shipping for a single glass. Good grief!
Grimace got his second of two makeovers.
Like the Hamburglar, Grimace was a sinister character when he first came onto the scene: according to Business Insider, his name was “Evil Grimace,” and he was known to steal milkshakes and chase kids out of the restaurant. When they realized in the early ’70s that children were terrified of the scaly, four-armed miscreant, they toned down his image and made him far less menacing—but he still had a slobbery pink mouth and a generally undesirable shape. In 1985 they refined his look again, finally making him into the friendly giant gumdrop we all remember today. Speaking of milkshakes, do you know the most popular place to buy milkshakes in your state? Find out with this guide to The Absolute Best Ice Cream Shop in Every State.
Mickey’s Birthdayland racetoys felt like going to Disneyland.
For Mickey Mouse’s 60th birthday in 1988, McDonald’s celebrated with a series of pullback racers featuring all of our favorite characters from Mickey’s Playhouse. Mickey could pop a wheelie, Minnie’s car spun in circles, and for some inexplicable reason, Donald Duck drove a locomotive, despite the other four characters driving cars. If your parents never took you to Disneyland, this was basically the next best thing.
We had the professor to thank for McNuggets buddies.
The Professor was the resident scientist of McDonaldland, and though he technically existed in the ’70s, he rarely had speaking roles in ads and was always considered a tangential character. That all changed in 1983 when he became the mascot of the McNuggets launch and was reintroduced to the world as a Dr. Frankenstein-like character that made the McNuggets come alive. We have him to thank for all of those great McNugget Buddies ads, and the invention of the Dip-o-Matic!
You could win $1,000,000 by learning the McDonald’s menu song.
The McDonald’s Menu Song was a promotional campaign where the chain gave out vinyl records of a jingle that listed a mouthful of McDonald’s menu items to a catchy tune. On about 80 million records the singers botched the lyrics and gave up, but on one lucky record—the winning record—they sang straight through without a single mistake. In 1989 a thirteen-year-old boy in Galax, Virginia named Scotty Landreth claimed the million dollar prize, and millions of people learned to recite the McDonald’s menu by heart along the way.
You had about 10 of each of the berenstain bears toys.
In 1986, McDonald’s gave out little Berenstain Bears figurines with their Happy Meals. Mama and Papa Bear were both pushing wheelbarrows as if they were gardening, and Brother and Sister Bear were both riding on little carts. Because there were only four in the series, often people collected entire armies of them, with multiples of each character. Maybe that’s what makes them so hard to forget!
Muppet babies toys were great for racing.
The Muppet Babies Happy Meal toys were double the fun because each character was on their own set of wheels. Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo and Fozzie each came with their own vehicle: a car, trike, skateboard, and rolling rocking horse, which you could swap between the characters for seemingly endless combinations of racing. They were so popular that McDonald’s re-released them in the 1990’s!
Garfield mugs were ‘the most wanted.’
In this late 80’s commercial, Garfield refers to his face on this glassware set as “the most wanted mug in America” (see what he did there?) and at just 69 cents with the purchase of a Happy Meal, they really did sell like hot cakes. Though the internet seems to have confused the trademark date (1978) with the product release date (1987), 80’s kids have no question about when these came out: we can still feel the scalding hot Nesquik through the glass in our hands while we flip the channel from Growing Pains to Golden Girls.
Packaging was an environmental disaster.
Back in the 80’s, before global warming and climate change were household topics, nearly every item you could purchase from McDonald’s was served up in styrofoam. While you could probably still visit those unfortunately well-preserved burger boxes in landfills and oceans to this day, the company announced in 1990 that it would swap out its styrofoam for paper packaging, and has slowly made the switch over a matter of decades.
In Officer Big Mac’s playground jail, the burger ate you.
You may remember Officer Big Mac for his massive burger of a head, his old timey constable hat, or his clown shoes. Or, if you were a true kid of the 80’s, you remember him for the climb-in jails for children that he apparently authorized, endorsed, and created in his image. The idea of kid-prison as playground equipment would have been disturbing regardless, but 80’s kids are probably doubly haunted by the memory of climbing directly into the cop-burger’s mouth. McDonald’s ultimately retired the character in 1985 when they streamlined the cast of McDonaldland characters, but restored climbers have been spotted on eBay, as well as an episode of the TV show American Restoration.
McDonalds came under attack from competitors.
The rivalry between McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s predates the 80’s, but it was during this decade that the gloves came off and both Burger King and Wendy’s targeted Mickey D’s directly in a series of cheeky, ads. You could hardly turn on your TV without being caught in the crossfire. While McDonald’s was hardly dethroned (it’s undisputed that McDonald’s sells the most burgers and covers the most territory) many would argue that Wendy’s unofficially won the ad war with it’s extremely memorable “Where’s the beef?” campaign that debuted in 1984.
Everyone loved fry kids.
Fry Kids were basically anthropomorphized pom poms with googly eyes and sneakers on, but boy did they make sense somehow back in the ’80s. Initially segregated into two groups of Fry Guys and Fry Girls, the squad became coed in 1985 under their new name, appearing in fantastical McDonaldland-themed commercials that reminded us all to “keep your eyes on your fries.” Whether these have haunted your dreams since the 80’s, or been a source of sincere nostalgia, it’s hard to forget those french fry-loving mop tops of our youth.
Halloween was all about McDonald’s pails.
In 1986, McDonald’s started giving away what many regarded as the best Happy Meal prize of all time: Halloween pails for trick-or-treating. There were three in the original release, and though the jack-o-lantern faces looked nearly identical, they were given their own names (McPunk’n, McBoo, and McGoblin) to encourage people to collect all three. The fact that no kid needed three pails to lug around on Halloween didn’t stop them coming back every time there was a re-release.
Happy meals were everything we never knew we needed.
Happy Meals first hit the market in 1979, and we hit peak Happy Meal-mania in the 1980s. According to Reader’s Digest, they were inspired by kids’ cereals with promotional toys in the boxes—another popular food staple of the era—as well as parents’ complaints that kids should eat their own french fries, thank you very much. In 1987, the creator of the happy meal, Robert A. Bernstein of Bernstein-Rein Advertising, was gifted a bronze replica of a Happy Meal for his game-changing contribution to the fast food chain. Now, as a result of this invention, there are countless throwback Happy Meal toys that remind you of your childhood.