Whatever Happened To McDonald's PlayPlaces?

As a kid, McDonald's was a special treat. While nowadays it's no different than pulling up to any fast-food joint, a trip to McDonald's was more or less an experience no other restaurant could provide. It wasn't only the food you were looking forward to, but also the sprawling indoor jungle gym known simply as a PlayPlace. This multi-level complex included everything from twisting slides, interactive rooms, rope tunnels, and best of all, a Nintendo GameCube station where you could whittle away the minutes waiting for your food playing some Mario Kart. It was Ronald McDonald's personal fun center and you were his VIP.

The first McDonald's "PlayPlace" opened in 1972 in Illinois (via Illinois Parks and Recreation) and quickly became key staples of many McDonald's restaurants around the country. With bright neon lettering and a towering display of tubes and tunnels inside or outside the restaurant, McDonald's was an attractive lure for children — or adults wanting to let their kids burn off some excess energy. 

But, as Eater reports, the days of rollicking through plastic piping and throwing yourself down slides to get to your McNuggets seem to be long gone. What exactly happened to the personal playground of Ronald McDonald?

Did America really outgrow McDonald's PlayPlaces?

Walk into any McDonald's today and you'll know that the chain has come a long way from the colorful and wacky restaurant it marketed itself as back in the 1990s. It feels more mature, more sophisticated, almost as if someone traded Ronald McDonald in for Mad Men. According to QSR Magazine, this shift toward a more modern, sleek design is part of the chain's attempt to bring McDonald's into the future by implementing self-serve kiosks, table service, and curbside pickup. McDonald's is putting away the clown shoes and focusing on what it can do to move forward with its new image.

This inevitably means a shift away from PlayPlace and mascots. In a time when technology is becoming more engaging for both restaurants and customers alike, explains Reader's Digest, PlayPlaces suddenly don't seem as attractive. After all, what parent wants their kid running amok in a giant plastic superstructure with the weirdest things to ever happen at McDonald's PlayPlaces when they can have them sit quietly in front of an iPad? 

It's not just changing times and technology that hurt PlayPlace's popularity. Recent health scares, most notably COVID-19, have turned people's opinions on the play area, raising concerns about how clean and sanitary the structures even are. McDonald's temporarily closed its PlayPlace during the lockdowns and it seems that there hasn't been much of a demand for them to reopen quickly. But hey, maybe one day a new generation will call PlayPlace their home away from home.