What is the largest toy distributor in the world?

I’ll give you three guesses.

It isn’t Mattel or Hasbro — despite the popularity and longevity of toys like Barbie and G.I. Joe.

And it isn’t a big-box retailer like Walmart or Target — even though they carry all the major brands.

It’s not even Amazon — regardless of how many packed warehouses in its name around the country.

Believe it or not, the world’s largest toy distributor is none other than McDonald’s.

Now, I know what you’re thinking — McDonald’s doesn’t sell toys.

Ah, but they do.

Indirectly, anyway. You see, around 20% of the fast-food giant’s sales come from Happy Meals, each of which comes with a small toy. Which works out to about 1.5 billion (with a B) toys annually.

Over the years, these kid-friendly meals featured some of the most popular toys of the day. From Playmobils to Hot Wheels, Muppet Babies to Beanie Babies, there has been something for every kid to covet.

And now they’re coming for the adults…

Two weeks ago, McDonald’s brought back a selection of classic toys for a limited-time promotion to celebrate the Happy Meal’s 40th anniversary.

How it originally came about is another fascinating little tidbit. Allow me to digress…

In the mid-1970s, a woman named Yolanda Fernández de Cofiño opened several McDonald’s franchises in her home country of Guatemala.

Yolanda wanted to make it easier for mothers of small children to eat at her restaurants, so she created the Menu Ronald (Ronald’s Menu), which included a small hamburger, small fry and a small sundae.

The concept was successful and eventually found its way to the desk of Bob Bernstein, co-founder of famed advertising firm Bernstein-Rein. He designed the original Happy Meal packaging in 1977, prior to its official release in 1979.

For its debut, the offerings were more generic: a stencil, a wallet, an ID bracelet, a puzzle lock and a spinning top. Since then, McDonald’s has partnered with countless toy companies to offer licensed characters as well as original branded creations.

Like the McRobots released in 1987. Also known as Changeables, these transforming toys (riding on the popularity of Hasbro’s Transformers, no doubt) were named for their ability to turn into something else.

But instead of transforming into a Mack truck or a motorcycle, these robots transformed into McDonald’s food items, like a milkshake or a cheeseburger or a small fry.

Classic McDonald's Toys

My brother and I had a few of these from the 1990 series, including the cheeseburger and the fries, but they’ve since been lost to time.

There were also more practical playthings, like the Halloween pails of the mid-’80s. For many years, these brightly colored buckets could be seen in every kid’s hand come Oct. 31.

And, of course, there are special licensing deals with popular toys, TV shows and movies. Promotional toys linked to films were usually released in more limited quantities, upping their potential for rarity.

But perhaps the most memorable toy craze that made its way into the iconic cardboard box was the collection of Teenie Beanies (miniature Beanie Babies) McDonald’s released in 1997.

There were news reports of fights at various locations, some of which resulted in injuries and criminal charges. One employee in Miami was even charged with theft.

McDonald’s has issued several sets of Beanie Babies since then, but they were nowhere near as popular as that first release at the height of the Beanie Baby bubble.

Which brings me to the million-dollar question: Do any of these collectibles still hold any value?

The short answer is no.

The slightly longer answer is almost never.

And a more detailed response is that if it’s been long enough, there’s a spike in nostalgia from a certain fandom and you’ve managed to track down an entire set, you might be able to sell certain series for a few hundred dollars.

But those are quite a few stars that need to align before you can claim any sort of profit.

Mostly, there are simply too many Happy Meal toys out there. The marketplace, if you will, is completely saturated.

Plus, it’s unlikely that many Happy Meal toys managed to stay out of the hands of the kids who coveted them — so this is one collectible you pretty much only ever see used.

On eBay, prices typically fall under $100. Occasionally, you will see an astronomical number — like a full set of sealed 100 Years of Disney Magic toys for $10K — but that’s a rarity.

At the end of the day, “investing” in Happy Meal toys is just another bad fad.

By all means — enjoy ’em if you got ’em. Go ahead and buy them if you have the cash to spare. Just don’t expect to make any real money off of them.


Lucille St. John

Lucille St. John
Managing editor, Unconventional Wealth

P.S. Do you have a bunch of Happy Meal toys sitting in a drawer somewhere? Or other giveaways? McDonald’s toys might be too plentiful to be worth much, but the same can’t be said of other items. Let us know what you’ve got by sending your favorites (with pics if you’ve got ’em!) to feedback@unconventionalwealth.com — we’ll help you figure out if you’ve got treasure or trash.

Lucille St. John

Lucille St. John is the managing editor of Unconventional Wealth. A gentlewoman and a scholar, Lucille never received much in the way of a financial education. But what she lacks in fiscal knowledge she makes up for in taste.

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