We Finally Know Why McDonald's Play Places Vanished

Whether you were the exhausted parent looking to get some time away from your endlessly energetic kids or you were the endlessly energetic kid, we all remember McDonald's play places with some degree of fondness. You could make new friends, get zapped by enough built-up static electricity in the plastic tunnels to make all your hair stand straight up, and potentially even pick up a disease or two. Fun times, right?

That being said, with many McDonald's restaurants remodeling over the last several years, you've probably noticed that nearly all of the play places have disappeared. The sad truth is that whatever happened to McDonald's play places, it seems to have been inevitable that they would vanish at some point. Just think about how much McDonald's locations have changed over the years, and how much fast food as a whole has changed. Really, it's no wonder the play places are nearly gone. But, let's get into the nitty-gritty details, shall we?

Modern demand led to play places becoming extinct

The fate of the McDonald's play place comes down to, as with most things in the name of progress, a need to modernize and streamline services. Between 2000 and 2015 alone, fast food services increased by 20%, and they only continue to increase each year (via Fortune Business Insights). 

In order to keep up, chains like McDonald's cut back in areas like play places and seating, and instead expanded mobile ordering, increased the number of drive-thru lanes available, and improved technology. With fewer people eating in restaurants, it doesn't matter as much anymore whether a fast food chain has dozens of tables or a place for kids to play. Everyone's always on the go.

And, with everyone in a rush, it does seem like children are the ones who have taken the brunt of this move to streamlined living, at least in the fast food world. But, maybe it is safer for kids that the play area's are declining, due to some scary health details. 

Health concerns also drove the decline of play areas

While the thought of play places existing only in our collective memories may be depressing, it's our new reality. According to The New York Times, the trend toward using digital interfaces began in 2016 when McDonald's introduced screen ordering and, well, everything just snowballed from there. 

However, there were other issues, too. According to Reader's Digest, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission found numerous unreported injuries on the outside Big Mac Climbers. Once these gave way to indoor play areas the concerns worsened as reports of dirty nappies in the ball pits and other unseemly substances came flooding in. In fact, Food Service News reports that in 2011 a professor at Arizona State University tested a number of indoor play areas, after noticing rotting food in the corner of one her child was playing in. The results of the testing showed that many of these indoor areas tested positive for dangerous bacteria.

So, with the health concerns and the ever-pressing drive towards modernity, the McDonald's of the future — and all other fast food chains, for that matter — will likely become increasingly streamlined to satisfy demand, for better or for worse.

Will McDonald's play places ever return?

While there's no way for anyone to know whether or not McDonald's play place will ever make a comeback, one thing is certain -– they'll never be the same as they were. So much has changed since the first McDonald's play place opened in 1971: technology, people's dining habits, and even our understanding of sanitation. It should be no surprise that those early play places weren't going to last forever.

That being said, if McDonald's happened to bring back its play places, what might these structures look like? What kinds of activities might they include? According to Eater, many experts suggest that 'playscapes' of the future adopt a more solitary nature that incorporates the kind of digital play kids are used to nowadays. Sure, that could mean sitting down with a Big Mac and playing a video game at the table, but there are plenty of virtual reality games that double as exercise if McDonald's wanted to go that route. What's more, these kinds of games are accessible to both kids and adults alike. A win-win, really.

Kid-friendly restaurants to try in the meantime

McDonald's and other fast food chains are arguably still family-friendly, but if you've got little ones with you and they need to be entertained while dining out, a more interactive restaurant could be a better choice for everyone. Chuck E. Cheese, for instance, has play areas and an arcade, making it great for keeping kids busy for a few hours.

Similarly, Dave & Buster's also has an arcade — and some locations even boast games like laser tag, bowling, and ping pong. While this particular restaurant may not be ideal for very young kids, it can be a lot of fun for elementary school-aged kids and teenagers (not to mention parents).

Last but not least, you can take your family for a meal at the Rainforest Cafe if you still have one near you. Sure, the Rainforest Cafe may not have a play place like McDonald's or an arcade like Chuck E. Cheese, but it does feature animatronics and some pretty cool special effects. What kid wouldn't want to eat dinner next to a giraffe?