July 17, 2009 -- It began as a small box housing a hamburger, French fries with a toy inside and a soda on the side. Thirty years later, the McDonald's Happy Meal has become a fast-food staple that revolutionized the industry.
The kids' meal was first introduced nationally in 1979 with a Circus Wagon Train theme and tried to attract younger customers with a McDoodler stencil, puzzle lock, McWrist wallet, ID bracelet, spinning tops and McDonaldland character erasers as the featured toys.
The meal's toy became the key to its big business and success by changing the way children ordered food.
The plaything lured children -- and sometimes adults -- to collect all the items in a series.
To date, billions of meals and toys have been sold, proving just how serious the Happy Meal business is.
"We've got experts within McDonald's. We work with advertising agencies. We have consultants outside of that help to make sure that we are striking the proper balance of fun and playability on an ongoing basis," said Neil Golden, McDonald's chief marketing officer.
Inside a Happy Meal Toy
Most of the toys that make the Happy Meal so popular are made, marketed and tested at an Illinois company called the Marketing Store.
They make the toys and ensure their safety through a series of tests. Denise Wilson, the senior director of quality assurance for McDonald's USA, said they test thousands of toys annually.
Wilson is essentially paid to break -- or try to break -- the playthings, all in an effort to make certain that the toys that ultimately reach McDonald's youngest consumers are safe.
The most popular Happy Meal toy ever was when McDonald's gave out more than 100 million Teenie Beanie Babies. The giveaway of 100 million of the little creatures, which began in April 1997, ignited a national craze for the stuffed animals.
The Happy Meal's Legacy
Since its creation, the Happy Meal has spawned sequels, like the Mighty Kids Meal, which is geared toward tweens with its larger portion sizes, and the briefly offered Go Active! package, marketed as a healthy Happy Meal for adults.
When the Happy Meal first hit the marketplace it had 600 calories and the nation wasn't focused on children's waistlines. Since the meal hit the McDonald's menu, the childhood obesity rate has nearly quadrupled from 4.2 percent to 17 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
The company has tried to adjust to the changing landscape by offering alternatives to soda and French fries, like milk and apple slices.
"Today the most popular Happy Meal would be the four-piece chicken McNuggets, apple dippers low fat caramel dip and 1 percent low fat milk — calories coming in at 375," said Cindy Good, McDonald's director of nutrition.