What Really Happened To McDonaldland?

If you were a child in America sometime between the mid-1970s and 1990s, odds are 1) McNuggets and mysterious "orange drink" (via Facebook) hold deep sentimental appeal, and 2) you remember the fast food-fueled funhouse known as McDonaldland (via TV Tropes).

A bold marketing endeavor born in 1971, McDonaldland aimed to sell food to kids by capitalizing on their fascination with playful TV characters. The hugely successful campaign spawned numerous, memorable commercials along with a line of toys, clothes, and other novelty items. In the end, the restaurant chain credited McDonaldland with making them second only to Santa Claus in brand recognition among children (via Mental Floss).

Led by Ronald McDonald, McDonaldland's original icons of deep fried fun include a cast of kooky, burger-loving (in some cases, weirdly, burger-headed) pals. Notable characters include prominent elected official Mayor McCheese, hardened career criminal and lovable scamp, the Hamburglar, and Grimace ... the weird purple thing. Despite being dubbed "the most terrifying inhuman creature on the face of the earth" by Entertainment Weekly, Ronald McDonald presided over a whimsical, beefy empire that was a certified hit with kids. The popular McDonaldland characters came to serve another important purpose: bringing life to the restaurant's pioneering PlayLand. The heavily branded, outdoor children's play area found at certain franchise locations was the first of its kind, and helped to establish McDonald's as the place for family-friendly food with a side of fun.

So what happened to McDonaldland? The answer might surprise you.

McDonaldland became the subject of a bitter lawsuit

Despite seemingly endless appeal, the inhabitants of McDonaldland were soon embroiled in controversy. It began with the characters' inception at the advertising agency of Needham, Harper, & Steers. Seeking to capture young imaginations, the agency reached out to TV producers Sid and Marty Krofft, creators of the psychedelic kids' show H.R. Pufnstuf. According to Mental Floss, the Kroffts consented to the use of existing Pufnstuf characters in an ad campaign for the hamburger chain, but were later told the ads had been cancelled. Several commercials and one giant lawsuit (posted at Law Resource) later, the Kroffts asserted that McDonaldland borrowed so heavily from H.R. Pufnstuf that it constituted copyright infringement.

Similarities detailed in the lawsuit include those between cheeseburger-skulled Mayor McCheese and the eponymous H.R. Pufnstuf. Both have comically oversized, distorted heads, both hold municipal office, and both wear similar outfits adorned with official sashes. The suit also details commonalities in the rendering style of McDonaldland and Living Island, the setting for H.R. Pufnstuf. Other facts presented in the lawsuit show McDonald's poached employees who had helped to design sets, costumes, and characters for the TV show, and they even recruited some of the same voice actors. In the end, as Daily Journal reported, McDonalds lost the suit and paid out a settlement of more than $1 million. Unfortunately for hardcore McCheese enthusiasts, the court ruling required the restaurant chain to stop using certain McDonaldland characters in any ads, promotions, or packaging.

What's a McDonaldland fan to do in 2021?

That hasn't stopped the Hamburglar and company from living on in infamy, however. Memorabilia featuring original McDonaldland characters can fetch a pretty penny, in some cases thousands of dollars. The artifacts are so coveted, auctioneer powerhouse Heritage Auctions recently decided to get in on the game with a stash of more than 350 items from the original McDonaldland Playland (via Los Angeles Magazine).

The origins of the first Playland are fascinating. Shortly after the restaurant's kid-friendly commercials became a TV fixture, the chain hired Hollywood design firm Setmakers, Inc. to bring McDonaldland into the real world. The burger behemoth spared no expense and, in 1972, the world's first McDonaldland Playland opened to an excited crowd in Chula Vista, California. The park featured playground equipment (posted on Flickr) designed in the unmistakable image of Ronald McDonald and his friends, crafted per the very trippy McDonaldland Specification Manual (also on Flickr). Soon, McDonaldland Playlands began to appear at select franchise locations around the country.

Though McDonald's rebranded its kid-friendly spaces as "PlayPlaces" in the late 1990s, the spirit of the original lived on through the early 2000s. Today, however, PlayPlaces are increasingly rare, reports Reader's Digest. Some speculate (per Eater) that the demand for outdoor play areas simply isn't as great as it was decades ago, while others, such as Crain's Chicago Business, cite a decline in McDonald's food consumption overall.

Oh well, at least we'll always have the fries.