McDonald's Happy Meal Toy on Jungle Cruise in Walt Disney World

The year was 1918, and Americans were headed off to fight for their country in World War I. Eager to be a part of it, a 15 year old boy lied about his age to join the Red Cross as an ambulance driver. He would later find his true entrepreneurial calling, building a brand which would eventually become a household name around the United States. This boy was Ray Kroc. 

Did another name come to mind? If so, it was probably Walt Disney! Both Walt and Ray lied about their age to enter into World War I, and even met as Red Cross Trainees in Connecticut. These like minded master entrepreneurs would go on to forge their own paths, and it wasn't until almost 40 years later that Ray Kroc would try to make a connection again.

While McDonald's was gearing up for the grand opening of its first franchise location in Des Plaines, Illinois, Walt Disney had his own grand opening to prepare for -- Disneyland in Anaheim, California. Ray Kroc saw the potential for a partnership between their two businesses, and decided to reach out to Walt Disney to see if they could make something happen.

On October 20, 1954, Ray Kroc wrote a letter to Walt Disney "Dear Walt, ...I would like to inquire if there may be an opportunity for a McDonald’s in your Disneyland Development." With Walt's main focus being the completion of Disneyland, the letter would be passed on to the VP of Disneyland Concessions and progress towards a Disney and McDonald's partnership wouldn't move forward before the park’s grand opening.

>We’re now entering the 1980’s, where big changes are happening at the Walt Disney Company. In September of 1984, Michael Eisner became CEO of the Walt Disney Company and his focus was driving guests of all ages -- especially teens -- back into Disney Parks. Attractions like Videopolis, Captain EO, and other teen favorites began to make their way into Disneyland and Walt Disney World, with a much-anticipated new log flume ride in the works!

Splash For Cash

To help promote the upcoming attraction opening, Disney partnered with McDonald’s for a joint promo deal -- Splash For Cash. Similar to the Monopoly game at McDonald’s, customers could purchase drinks and food items from the restaurant, peel off a sticker, and reveal prizes like cash, food, tickets to Disneyland, and more.

This promotional campaign of commercials and ads from McDonald’s played a huge part in creating excitement for Splash Mountain. The future attraction was even attracting international visitors to the Happiest Place on Earth. The only problem was: Splash Mountain continued to have delays during construction, pushing off the opening of the attraction that McDonald’s had been promoting.

Splash Mountain opened about six months behind schedule, leaving McDonald’s disappointed. After a few Disney Happy Meal promotional tie ins in 1989 and 1990 for films like The Little Mermaid and The Rescuers Down Under, the potential partnership between Disney and McDonald’s seemed to fizzle out.

A McDisney Production

The 1990’s proved to be an exciting time for both Disney and McDonald’s. While one was experiencing the iconic “Disney Renaissance” and an array of successful new films, the other was mastering the art of driving consistent traffic into their restaurants through promotional toys and play places. Would Ray Kroc’s dream of a Disney and McDonald’s partnership finally be realized in the 1990’s?

After partnering with Pizza Hut and Burger King for a few promotional movie tie-ins, Disney made their way back to McDonald’s in 1996 for a new game -- Disney Video Masterpiece Collection Trivia Challenge. Similar to Splash For Cash, customers would buy food and beverages from McDonalds to peel off a sticker on the products. This time, the stickers revealed Disney film trivia questions and customers would have to scratch off the correct answer. This game offered over 300 million prizes, including vacations to Disney parks of course!

Around this time, Disney and McDonald’s would come to terms for their exclusive decade-long partnership, which would begin on January 1, 1997. With this partnership, McDonald’s became the go to promotional sponsor for all things Disney. They paid $1 million in royalties for the rights to shows, characters, movies, and even theme parks for Happy Meal toy creation.

When asked about the partnership, CEO Michael Eisner said, “This is the most ambitious promotional effort ever developed between two of the best known family-friendly brands...A true ‘McDisney Production’.”

Over the decade-long partnership, McDonald was said to pull in $1 billion from the promotions. Their Happy Meals included toys inspired by the latest Disney films, including Monsters, Inc., The Incredibles, Toy Story 2, Mulan, The Emperor’s New Groove, Finding Nemo, Cars, and Lilo & Stitch -- just to name a few. McDonald's even offered a special Szechuan Sauce for the release of Mulan in theaters. The cross promotion of Disney and McDonald’s didn’t stop there, though.


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