7 best and 7 worst Happy Meal toys

Is there anything more ambitiously named than the McDonald's Happy Meal?

It's a tall order, to serve up an emotion as elusive as happiness. And even more so, to claim that something as simple as a hamburger and small fries can induce said euphoria. But let's be honest. It has nothing to do with the food, and it never has. The "meal" is not what makes it happy.

It's all about the toys. Those glorious, surprisingly well-made and collectible toys. And it all started in 1979, according to the Chicago Tribune.

The toys weren't the best at first (tops, anyone?) — but they got better. Then amazing. Then sometimes... disappointing. They also fell under scrutiny for advertising unhealthy food to children (via NBC News). But despite this, they largely lived up to the promise. They brought the happy. Here are some of the best — and worst — Happy Meal toys.

Best: Hot Wheels Happy Meal toys

Hot Wheels and Happy Meals go together like a burger and fries. Not only were Hot Wheels some of the first hugely successful Happy Meal toys, they stuck around. MVPs of McDonald's toys, they show up again and again in newer, cooler, and sometimes themed iterations. According to Complex, Hot Wheels showed up around 15 different times in the first 25 years of Happy Meals alone.

For this love affair, Hot Wheels first hooked up with the Happy Meal in 1983, and the first toys were actually very high-quality, painted metal cars. In the 90s, they switched to plastic, but kept the coolness. Nowadays, the Hot Wheels designed for McDonald's are made specifically for the company (via Hot Wheels Fandom).

The retro Hot Wheels from 1983 can now be found on eBay for up to $30, and the 2019 cars come in various models such as the D-Muscle and Formula race cars. They also come with a variety of tracks in that iconic Hot Wheel orange, including tight turns and ramps.

Best: Food Changeables Happy Meal toys

When transformers came on the toy scene in the 1980s, McDonald's made sure to jump on that morphing-robot bandwagon. But they wanted to do so while also promoting their products. Thus, the McDonald's Happy Meal Food Changeables were born. And they got a cool commercial to go with.

The premise is that the Munchoids are stealing all the Happy Meals from Earth, and the Food Changeables need to stop them. The robot named Fry comes up with the clever idea to shrink down and duplicate themselves, so that everyone will get one in their Happy Meal, and the Munchoids will be defeated. A solid plan. Burger seems to be the leader, because, obviously. They assemble and head to Earth.

The robots were released several times in the '80s and '90s, and eventually came in the shapes of different burgers, drinks, fries, chicken McNuggets, ice cream cones, hotcakes, and the Egg McMuffin. With a few flips they became little robots with colorful faces. These were popular enough to inspire a spin-off that featured dinosaurs and the Happy Meal box itself as a disguise (via Dinosaur Dracula).

Best: Teenie Beanies Happy Meal toys

There was one time the McDonald's Happy Meal was maybe too good. In the 1990s, Beanie Babies were all the craze, and McDonald's cinched the coveted opportunity to collaborate with Beanie Babies owner Ty Warner to create the McDonald's Happy Meal Teenie Beanies collection in 1997. According to the New York Post, the idea was to introduce the Beanie Babies to people in lower socioeconomic classes. The slightly smaller toys came in the same cute animal shapes with adorable names. It was pandemonium.

Despite the insanity and collectibility, the Teenie Beanies aren't actually worth that much today. A set of 10 mint-in-package Beanies from 1997 cost less than $30 on Amazon

And just like Hot Wheels, Beanie Babies have stuck around, but they've evolved quite a bit. They're now called Teenie Beanie Boos, and you've probably seen them around without realizing their famous ancestors. Like with the original Happy Meal beanie babies, they are in the shapes of various animals, but they have large glittering eyes. The 2019 collection came in rainbow colors with a very Lisa Frank-styled color palette. Of course, they still come with that signature "Ty" tag.

Best: McDonald's Fast Macs Happy Meal toys

These 1984 pull-back cars might seem simple, but this Happy Meal toy was not only successful at entertaining kids, it also introduced them to the fun characters of Camp McDonaldland.

According to a video posted by Toy Polloi, Fast Mac Happy Meals toys were based off of the popular Penny Racers, so named because you could "pop a penny in the car" and the cars would do a wheelie as they drove around. They were tiny, but well-made, and McDonald's was inspired.

Their version of the toy was very similar, but they took out the penny component and added a weight at the back of the car instead. They also weren't about to give up a bit of extra advertising. In the 1970s, McDonald's had devised an advertising campaign known as Camp McDonaldland, which was a fictional land where Ronald McDonald and his cohort of food-based characters lived and interacted (via The Straight Dope). Some of the most famous characters included the Hamburglar, known (you guessed it) for stealing burgers, and Birdie the Early Bird, who was introduced in the 1980s with McDonald's new breakfast menu items.

Best: Inspector Gadget Happy Meal toys

Some of the most addictive, impressive Happy Meal toys have been glorified advertisements for movies. Such is the case for the Inspector Gadget collection of 1999 (via Drive Thru Toys). The toys are based on a film featuring Matthew Broderick, in which a security guard is blown up and then put back together again with various robot features with crime-fighting capabilities.

The genius of the Happy Meal collection was that while each toy (or limb, in this case) could function on its own, they could also be assembled into a full-sized, working Inspector Gadget action figure. The toys were also remarkably high quality, with fun creative features and a face that actually resembles Broderick. Each individual piece was completed with intricate detail and color, and as a whole, Inspector Gadget's limbs could extend, move around, and turn.

This toy was aggressively cool, especially considering it came free with a meal. For example, if you pressed down on Inspector Gadget's head, it would cause a spark in the center of his chest. His left arm worked as a mini-grabber and his right arm was a spiffy water gun. His legs, which could extend him to roughly a foot tall, were a spiffy green laser pointer and a pair of pliers. Then of course, the pièce de résistance — the propeller hat, which sounded like a real life helicopter when spun.

Best: My Little Pony Happy Meal toys

Similar to Hot Wheels, My Little Pony and the Happy Meal have had a mutually beneficial relationship. One of the most recognizable McDonald's toys to this day, My Little Pony first debuted in 1982 and became a Happy Meal Toy in 1985. The toys spawned an animated series and movie, which boosted the toy's popularity across the '90s (via 24/7 Wall St).

It was the 1997 Happy Meal collection that wowed kids with brush-able tails and manes, intricate decals, and heads that could actually turn (via Fast Food Toy Reviews). Although the design of My Little Pony has changed since then, the toy has maintained huge popularity, with help from its 2010 reboot show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.

But not only is My Little Pony adorable and collectible, it's fun for children to play with. The use of distinct characters adds to the playability of the toys, allowing children to rediscover the toys generation after generation.

Best: Hercules Happy Meal toys

For kids whose parents couldn't afford to buy them the newest doll or action figure, the McDonald's Happy Meal often teamed up with Disney to make sure we never felt left out. The '90s was the decade of the Disney Renaissance, starting with The Little Mermaid in 1989 and ending with Tarzan in 1999 (via Decent Films). Near the end of this era was Hercules, and the Happy Meal figures released in 1997 were some of the best.

Hercules himself came with a sword and a shield, and his arms could move up and down for real fighting action. The purple monster Hydra was hollow and could be popped open for a secret hiding spot. Also available were Meg, Pegasus, the Titans, and various gods.

Each figure was extremely detailed and well-painted, and many came with moving parts. This attention to detail is something you'll also see in other Disney-inspired Happy Meal figurines, such as for The Lion King, Mulan, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Worst: Halloween Buckets Happy Meal toys

The best thing about the McDonald's Happy Meal was the toy, so imagine children's disappointment when they got a bucket instead. Instead of the traditional Happy Meal box, McDonald's gave out their meals in these colorful Halloween-themed pails in the shapes of ghosts, pumpkins, and witches. They debuted in the Halloween season of 1986, but would stick around until 2016, coming back with each spooky season.

It seems like a cool idea, but children still expected there to be a toy in the pail — and there wasn't. The bucket itself was supposed to be the toy, yet many complained that it was too small for much use in trick-or-treating. Over the years, the buckets would change and develop, but they could never get over its major hurdle: a bucket is not a toy.

Some versions of the bucket, however, did try to spice things up. The ghost in the 1990 version glowed in the dark, and the 1992 versions had cookie cutter lids (via Dread Central). Sure, these were festive and fun in their way...but in terms of playability, they fell pretty flat.

Worst: Camp McDonaldland Camp Gear Happy Meal toys

Believe it or not, there are kids who do not like camping. Sure, they like the s'mores and the campfire stories, but they want to sleep in their own beds and have access to running water. Camp gear, especially cheaply-made, ugly camp gear, would not have met those children's expectations of a toy. Especially not a Happy Meal toy.

But that's what kids got in 1990. In an effort to promote Camp McDonaldland (the fictional paradise home to Ronald McDonald and his fast food-inspired friends), McDonald's Happy Meal included a set of "camping gear" that would be less than helpful in any real-life camping situations.

There was a plastic frying pan, some plastic utensils, and a small water bottle that didn't hold much water (via The Recipe). Each was decorated with a different Camp McDonald character enjoying themselves in the woods. Grimace is bird watching and Birdie is roasting a marshmallow, but you're stuck wondering how exactly to play with these baby-ish, clumsy-looking chunks of plastic. Worst of all might have been the collapsible cup, which barely looked McDonald's-related until closer inspection. Not a toy. And not Happy.

Worst: Bronze Little Mermaid Figurines Happy Meal toys

McDonald's has found a lot of success over the years partnering with Disney on its Happy Meal toys, but one undeniable failure was the "gold-plated" Little Mermaid figures. Usually, McDonald's Happy Meal figurines are high quality, with carefully painted details or moveable parts. But these toys were all painted an unsightly fake gold, were disproportionately sized, and lacked the magic that made The Little Mermaid a blockbuster hit.

These 1997 toys were clearly meant to be collected, rather than loved. They were blasted with an inexplicable bronze paint that obscured Ariel's delicate facial features and made Scuttle look like a bird caught in a nasty oil spill (via Screen Rant). Even more confusing, Ursula was the only character who wasn't a proper figurine at all, but rather an inflatable doll. She was also the only one that wasn't covered in paint.

All this is in contrast to the earlier 1989 version of The Little Mermaid Happy Meal toys. These were painted with bright, realistic colors and were meant to be played with in the water, making them a popular bath time toy (via Buzzfeed). On the other hand, the gilded figurines were too disappointing to play with... and weren't pretty enough to display, either.

Worst: Step-It Happy Meal toys

Probably a more apt name for this "toy" would have been the McDonald's MissStep. In an effort to promote healthy lifestyles, McDonald's released a pedometer as its Happy Meal toy in 2016. As CNN reports, this decision was already controversial, as some nutritionists saw it as a ploy to divert consumers' attention away from the unhealthy nature of McDonald's food.

The toy wasn't too terrible to look at. It was designed to look like a watch with brightly-colored neon straps. There was the motion-activated light-up band and also the activity counter, and overall they looked pretty cool. But not only were they a bit misguided in principle, they were also dangerous.

Parents reported that the watches were causing burns and skin irritation. As Facebook user Casey Collyar posted on August 13, 2016, "If your kids have this happy meal toy do not let them play with it. Cason has a burn after playing with the toy for about 8 minutes."

McDonald's attempt at promoting health had instead backfired into causing harm. This led to McDonald's issuing a huge recall of the product. In return for the product, customers were allowed to choose from a yogurt tube, apple slices, or a new toy. Unfortunately for some, the memory of this terrible toy was already burned into both skin and memory.

Worst: Halloween McNugget Buddies Happy Meal toys

Unlike some of the other items on this list, at least these are actually toys. They are well-painted, collectible figurines that even come with changeable outfits. But other than being a highly collectible way to showcase one's love of chicken McNuggets, these aren't exactly fun to play with.

It all started in 1988 with the original, non-spooky McNugget Buddies, which were anthropomorphic chicken McNuggets that came with different faces and outfits. The outfits were interchangeable, giving the McNugget Buddies a kind of Mr. Potato Head-vibe. They were odd, and clearly a way to advertise a food product, but just clever and silly enough to become a fairly popular toy that holds a lot of nostalgic value for Gen X-ers. McDonald's even re-released the retro toy in 2019 to celebrate the Happy Meal's 40th anniversary.

However, while the original McNugget Buddies had endeared themselves to kids in 1988, by the time McDonald's came out with the Halloween McNugget Buddies in 1993, many of the children were left confused of what to do with them (via The Gamer). After a five-year hiatus, they were clearly targeting a previous generation of toy-players. While characters like McNuggula and McBoo McNugget were interesting to unpack and swap outfits with, without the memory of the original McNuggets Buddies, this toy was quickly forgotten at the bottom of the toy bin.

Worst: Ronald McDonald Sunglasses Happy Meal toys

These are not just ugly, but also kind of terrifying. Also, since when were sunglasses a toy? You couldn't play with these without possibly poking your eye out, and any fashion statement you made was downright embarrassing. The worst thing about it all was the sheer laziness of slapping a McDonald's character onto a basic accessory item, in the hopes that the allure of Camp McDonaldland would be enough to appease kids.

It was not. Even worse, kids were expected to act as walking, talking advertisements for the company, without a proper toy in return. This happened again and again in the '80s and '90s, when Camp McDonaldand was the center of Happy Meal marketing.

Although characters like Grimace and the Fry Guys weren't terrible in and of themselves, this thoughtless use of the characters was insulting to both the Happy Meal legacy and customers. There were some cool McDonald character toys, like the race cars, but this was not it.

Worst: Allegedly Swearing Minion Happy Meal toys

This toy makes the list of worst Happy Meal toys because it is on one hand controversial, and on the other hand, just incredibly annoying. In 2015, McDonald's released a collection of talking minions, based off the Minions film from the same year.

One of the minions fell under special scrutiny, with many parents claiming to hear it swearing "what the f**k!" According to CNBC, McDonald's refuted the claim, saying that the minion was speaking "Minionese" and simply saying "para la bukay," "eh eh," or maybe "hahaha."

Regardless of whether the minion is swearing or not, imagine hearing that chatty, distorted minion recording over, and over, and over again. Although many are obsessed with these obnoxious creatures (some of which we'll admit can be cute), their marketing is excessive. Either way, whether you love it, hate it, or think it may be profane, the caveman-themed minion lives on in infamy.