What Happened To McDonald's PlayPlaces?
COVID-19 aside, I really wanted to know what happened to McDonald's PlayPlaces.
If you're an 80s baby like me, you remember the Golden Age of fast food pretty well. Or, like, the tail end of it, anyway. It was a glorious age where kids learned to have a Pavlovian reflex over the oily scent of deep fried fries, knowing that they would be able to sink their teeth into a sad little patty on a limp burger bun.
Though Happy Meals were a major part of this era, there was one thing that every kid looked forward to: the PlayPlace. These were (erm, are?) small playgrounds that had a bunch of McDonald's-themed goodies. Often enough, they'd have a ball pit, some hamster tubes, and gear themed like McDonald's characters.
For a while, they were just a staple part of the McDonald's experience. It was the way things were: parents got to eat burgers in relative peace, kids would be shoved off into a ball pit that smelled like socks and grease. Everyone won.
Until they disappeared.
At first, it was just one or two locations. The PlayPlaces were suddenly off-limits, followed up by construction. Then, new McDonald's locations were built without the sacred, important playgrounds of yore. Eventually, it became a rare sight to see. Ever wondered what gives?
Changing Of The Seasons: The Risks
I'll be the first one to admit that the 80s and 90s were a time of flux. People first started to realize how risky stuff was. And this means they sued at the drop of a hat. This included a lawsuit for coffee that was too hot as well as a lawsuit for falling on a crack.
Needless to say, business owners were not happy when they realized those PlayPlaces were actually supersized liabilities. After all, most people who have ever babysat kids know that kids are amazingly talented at harming themselves.
In the 80s, a kid who fell and broke a bone would have been told to walk it off. In the 90s? Well, not so much. By 2000, it was a serious litigious issue that could easily cost the company's franchisees a lot of money for insurance purposes. Most franchisees rightfully noped out of there.
Of course, they couldn't just say that PlayPlaces were not exactly good for owners. Unfortunately, this turned into an issue that made many franchisees sweat bullets.
The Big Ick
If you were a kid of the 90s, you may remember the issue that a lot of older kids had with McDonald's PlayPlaces. They had a (sometimes deserved) reputation for being fairly unsanitary. Even when they were well-kept, they often had a sour smell that came from all the socks that kids would wear there.
To be fair, most PlayPlaces weren't very sanitary. There were tons of articles involving parents finding used diapers, snakes, and even stories about people who pooped in the ball pits. One study even showed that ball pits are filled to the brim with potentially deadly bacteria.
Even as a kid, I remembered lots of other children being increasingly wary of PlayPlaces. Why? Because most of us kinda found them gross. Eventually, kids kinda started avoiding them in favor of cellphone games.
A More Streamlined Look
One of the things that McDonald's struggled with during the late 90s and early 2000s was stigma. It was seen as a place where parents dropped off screaming kids and force-fed them fatty food.
Movies like SuperSize Me! didn't help the fact that it looked like cheap nutrition and bad vibes. If you asked anyone what cheap looked like during this time, they'd have told you McDonald's.
Unfortunately, this hurt their bottom line. Big time. To make matters worse, real estate began to become a problem. The price of real estate meant that you couldn't afford to have "unused space" in a restaurant.
So, the execs at McDonald's wanted to update things. They decided to streamline things. Slowly but surely, they modernized the restaurants. They turned McDonald's into more cafe-like places, not that far away from the Starbucks look of yore.
While McDonald's will always have a somewhat kid-friendly veneer, the truth is that it's a chain that outgrew PlayPlaces. For the longest time, parents used PlayPlaces as a place to let kids release energy. Nowadays, it's not so much.
During the pandemic, McDonald's shut down all their PlayPlaces across the country. Today, the company has remained mum on when they will reopen on a national level. While they've insisted that they're not doing a massive permanent closure of these once-loved places, one thing is clear.
The days of the PlayPlace are dwindling. So, you might want to grab a photo of one before they're totally gone.
About the author
Ossiana Tepfenhart is a writer based out of NJ. You can message her via Twitter on @bluntandwitty or via Instagram on @ossiana.makes.content. She's always looking for freelance work and collabs!