Halloween. HavoK. We've been at this for quite some time, haven't we? I don't think there was any intention of making this an annual theme. Honestly, I originally planned on skipping 2021 due to a lack of motivation. There aren't too many Halloween-themed wrestling events out there to cover, which covers my usual field of expertise, and I'm not in the mood to dissect episodes of the Simpsons "Treehouse of Horror" specials. When things get me down, and video entertainment isn't doing it for me, I fall back on my other passions and quirks, which brings me to toy collecting.
As someone desperately trying to hold on to the past, I've developed quite a collection of toys from my childhood, either replacing original pieces that were destroyed from years of abuse, or toys that I've always wanted, but never got my hands on for whatever reasons (lack of availability, poverty, you decide), and that finally gave me some inspiration. The lightbulb finally flickered on as I made my daily searches on Instagram and eBay for toy sales. Fast Food Kid Meal toys. These days, it's practically illegal to market to children, but in my day (I'm old), marketing to children was fair game, and everyone did it, from yogurt to cereal and, of course, fast food restaurants. While most places offered kids meals and a "premium" (toy or accessories to go with the good), I think it's safe to say McDonald's and Burger King were tops, and the gap between them and the next tier was quite the distance that it isn't worth discussing how far apart they were.
While McDonald's is and has been the most popular fast-food chain, we should give a little respect to Burger King as well. For a period in the 1990's, they were holding their own for their kid's meal offerings, securing a partnership with Disney. From celebrating Disneyland, to promoting new animated series like Goof Troop and Bonkers, and most importantly, toys and special premiums tied in with feature films like Aladdin and the Lion King at the height of Disney's return to glory in theaters, Burger King Kids Meals were as good, if not better, than the McDonald's Happy Meal. Sure, McDonald's had the better mascots (Ronald McDonald will always be the GOAT) and an awesome playground, but for a short while, they had competition in at least one department. Have I mentioned I have a little bit of personal bias that shows me favoring Burger King?
As I researched and conceptualized this list, I kicked around the idea of featuring premiums from BOTH Burger King and McDonald's, but the more I investigated it, the more I remembered that Burger King rarely did Halloween tie-ins to promote their Kid's Meals. In fact, when I was a kid, I can only remember one instance, when they released a set of Univeral Monsters in 1997 (Dracula, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Wolfman, and the Frankenstein Monster). There was a set of generic "Tricky Treaters" released in 1989 that I never saw before this week, and by the time "Treehouse of Horror" toys based on the Simpsons came out, it was in the 2000's, past my childhood... I still bought them, but that's a topic for a different day.
So, with those acknowledged, we'll focus on McDonald's Halloween premiums ONLY, with a couple of rules: There must be a direct connection to Halloween and not just costumed toys, like a small set of Looney Tunes dressed as DC Comic Heroes or changeable FryGuy set from 1989. Being inspired by Horror isn't enough, as the Real Ghostbusters franchise was used for a back-to-school promotion in 1987, and shockingly dug up in 1992 for a series of bike accessories (TBF, it was more "Slimer" than "The Real Ghostbusters for this set). Finally, I'm going to restrict the toys available to when I was no older than 13, which is why I disqualified the Burger King idea since most of their Halloween toys were beyond my cut-off date. That might seem like a higher age than one would categorize for the theme we're going for, but 13 and Halloween seems like the magic number. The rankings are based mostly on presentation and originality. This isn't a list of 20 different sets, so to differentiate, I will be extra nit-picky in how I rank them.
I'm instantly being cruel here, because I really liked these figures when I was a kid. You had the major McDonald's mascots in full figure form WITH costumes to go along with them, so that seems like an immediate contender for the top honors, right? Well, the four figures only make up HALF the lineup. The other half? Four cassette tapes featuring Halloween themed stories and music. I understand cassette tapes weren't entirely dead, but by 1995, I can't imagine many people going out of their way to play them, let alone kids who went to McDonald's for a Happy Meal. By 1995, I was already collecting CD's (my first? The Lion King soundtrack, of course), and even if I had interest in cassettes, I wouldn't want these. I distinctly remember my parents going out of their way to request the figures every time we went, because TO HELL with those stupid cassettes! With only a 50/50 ratio, I'm sorry to put this at the bottom, but obsolete technology taking up half the selection for Halloween themed "toys" is a major no-no.
OK, full disclosure... I wasn't buying "Happy Meals" in 1998. OK, full disclosure again... I did buy them for the Pokémon promotion that Burger King ran, where they released something like 60 different toys that ranged from beanie baby knockoffs to keychains, but that's a toy for a different day. I discovered this set years later and have them on a shelf in my living room as part of my Halloween decorations. Yes, I'm pathetic, save the emails. Since I'm looking at these without nostalgic glasses on, they still settle near the bottom of the rankings for one major reason. Unlike the 1995 costume/cassette combo, all six toys offered were TOYS, and once again, featured Ronald and Friends (and a weird creature and McNugget) in costume. Unlike that last set, these felt a little cheaper. Only the head and upper bodies were molded, though the masks add an extra element to the presentation. Not only that, but you could store NERDS CANDY inside them! Every kid's least favorite "favorite" candy. All things considered, the only reason this isn't at the very bottom of the list is because we've got a full set of toys to interact with instead of having to send your parents at the counter for a replacement... except me, it was 1998. I wasn't buying Happy Meals anymore. Can't prove I did, either. I disconnected my life from anyone associated with me from those days. Before you ask, no, I don't know anything about the Fisher-Price Toddler Toys.
McNuggets. That word will forever haunt my vocabulary for reasons I don't feel I need to get into, otherwise we might be here for far longer than necessary. McDonald's loved the gimmick of changeable costumes, as we've seen with past toy sets like the FryGuys (and other McNugget themed promotions), so it shouldn't be a surprise to see the McNuggets get the costumed treatment. Honestly, by 1996, I could already sense the lack of appeal to the cartoony characters McDonald's pushed on me as a youth, as the McNuggets and FryGuys were featured less frequently as the 90's rolled on. Couple that with some uninspired costumes and you have a middle of the road offering. Some random costumes that range from pretty good to why did they even bother, featuring characters that lost their charm a long time ago. I could see someone wanting the Ronald McDonald McNugget, but the Princess looks so bland, as if they had 15-seconds to conceptualize a design and someone doodled that on a napkin with time expiring. BUT WHAT IF YOU PUT THE RONALD COSTUME WITH THE PRINCESS HAIR? SEE, THAT'S WHY WE GIVE THIS A NOD AHEAD OF THE 1995 AND 1998 PROMOTIONS. Kids being whacky, or adults being so bored that they'll do anything to amuse themselves as they try to remember the moment in time when their life peaked. Great, now I'm depressed, and I don't have McDonald's to make me happy. I'll have to settle for frozen White Castle cheeseburgers.
There are some strong odds that if you ask anyone that was a kid in the 80's and 90's about McDonald's and Halloween, odds are that at one time or another, they had one of these buckets. Sure, they weren't meant to do serious Trick or Treat work, but they were handy in stashing away some candy whether it was Halloween or any random month out of the year. For the better part of a decade, the buckets would be brought back, with slight alterations to them with each return. The most iconic being the earliest versions. Though the buckets debuted in 1986 as three Jack-O-Lanterns with varied designs, the versions I remember most fondly are the ones pictured here: The Jack-O-Lantern, The Ghost, and The Witch. In subsequent years, these would also see redesigns, to the point they were no longer charming but an eyesore, but by that point, I stopped caring about Trick or Treating. I was tempted to place this at #1, but at the end of the day, it loses out due to being a glorified storage bin. Adorable storage bins that bleed nostalgia, but storage bins, nonetheless. Trust me, as I type this, I'm going to load in eBay and hunt for decent prices so I can pretend I'm still in Elementary School. Hopefully, this time I won't have an embarrassing pants wetting accident on the bus and having to pretend I don't smell anything.
OK, so I double dipped on the McNugget Buddies but lumped all the Trick or Treat buckets into one group. I understand the frustration in seeing someone break imaginary rules that rank old McDonald's premiums, but trust me, I have my reasons. Like the 1996 line, these costumes can be mixed and matched based on whatever whim floats your boat. Unlike that set, the costume designs for our buddies are top notch. TOP. F*CKING. NOTCH. Nowhere to be found are random aliens and dragons. No, we've got A VAMPIRE. A WITCH. A MUMMY. THE FRANKENSTEIN MONSTER. A GHOST. AND A PUMPKIN. CLASSIC HALLOWEEN. Not only are the ideas a home run, but all of them knock it out of the part esthetically. If I were a contestant on Family Feud and was tasked in naming the most popular Halloween costumes of my childhood, I would name pretty much all of these (except the Mummy, because Mommy didn't want to give up the toilet paper). So, to break it down: Peak period McNugget Buddies. Top Notch costumes. Excellent gimmick in being able to swap around the costumes. I can't think of a negative thing to say, and with that, clearly this belongs in the #1 spot. MY GOD, HOW SAD AM I TO RANK CHILDREN'S HAPPY MEAL TOYS?! IS THIS WHAT I'VE BECOME?!
Ronald McDonald, you magnificent bastard. You suckered me in with cheeseburgers and cool toys, and now, more than 25-years since I was realistically a kid ordering Happy Meals, you still live rent free in my head. I don't blame you for my childhood obesity, I blame you for making me love cheap toys made overseas that rarely had articulation. Now that I think about it, you ever realize how, back in the day, so many of the toy promotions featured popular characters driving cars (or vehicles in general)? I guess they were cheaper to make while milking the intellectual properties for all they were worth... where was I? Oh, yes, Halloween. The spirit of Halloween has dimmed in my heart a little bit over the last couple of years, but there'll always be the littlest spark ready to ignite a new love for this time of year. Whether it's dressing up or watching scary movies, or just remembering days long past, Halloween has produced some fun memories for me that go beyond toy collecting, and I hope all four people reading this have a safe and happy Halloween.