Visiting the Chula Vista, California, McDonald’s in the early 1970s was the closest a kid could get to stepping into a fast food commercial. The outdoor eating space connected to a playground filled with a cast of familiar characters. Hamburglar had been made into a 10-foot-tall swingset, Officer Big Mac into a hollow jungle gym, and Grimace into a child-sized cage. Ronald McDonald naturally presided over the scene “as the undisputed clown prince of this mythical domain,” as Illinois Parks and Recreation said of a prototype of the playground in 1972.
Kids loved the company’s inaugural PlayPlace as much as they loved its French fries—and parents loved it, too. At the dawn of the “stranger danger” era when stories of child abductions dominated the evening news, some adults began to view unsupervised trips to the park as a high-risk activity. A fenced-in play space on private property where admission was the cost of a burger was a welcome alternative.
Parents may have felt better letting their kids loose in McDonald’s contained environments, but any sense of safety was in their heads. Over the next several decades, as PlayPlaces popped up across the country and became an integral part of the brand, McDonald’s was keeping stories of second-degree burns, infectious bacteria, and broken bones under grease-stained wraps.
Cheeseburger in Paradise
After winning the hearts and stomachs of hungry adults, McDonald’s set its sights on young consumers. In 1971, the fast food company launched an ambitious marketing campaign introducing kids to McDonaldland—a fast food-themed world populated by Ronald and his pals. The brand rolled out the first Happy Meals nationwide by the end of the decade. Adding playgrounds to properties in the early ‘70s was one of the chain’s riskiest moves, and it quickly became one of its biggest draws.
McDonald’s tested an early version of its PlayLand (which was later rebranded to PlayPlace) at the Illinois State Fair in 1972. The Hollywood set designer Setmakers, Inc. put together a 4800-square-foot space where children could climb, slide, and swing among their favorite McDonaldland characters. Whimsical touches included a smiling apple pie tree, a Filet-O’-Fish fountain, and singing wastebaskets with signs reminding visitors to “feed” them.
McDonald’s figured that the playground would get roughly three years’ worth of use after just 10 days at the high-traffic fair. After handling an estimated 350,000 young visitors, the equipment passed all safety tests and was cleared for use at restaurants.
The first official McDonald’s PlayLand, which opened in Chula Vista, California, was a massive success. It was roughly twice the size of the pilot park in Illinois, and it increased the location’s business by more than 60 percent in the months following its opening. Other franchises across the country got on board, and by 1991, McDonald’s had become America’s largest playground operator with 3000 PlayPlaces.
This period coincided with a nationwide obsession with children’s safety. Following a handful of high-profile child abduction cases, families were bombarded with reminders of their kids’ vulnerability via milk cartons, afterschool specials, and even board games. McDonald’s PlayLand was already considered safer than your average public park, and this aspect was emphasized through the 1980s into the ‘90s. Many of the newly rebranded PlayPlaces transitioned fully indoors. Wood and metal were replaced with rubber and plastic. Instead of playing on freestanding swings and open-topped slides, kids now jumped into ball pits and crawled through tubes of soft netting.
The changes helped usher in an era of “soft play” that reflected growing cultural anxieties, but McDonald’s wasn’t just concerned with optics. The metal PlayLands of the 1970s were actually dangerous, and in many cases, parents should have been more worried about the equipment within the restaurants’ fences than the strangers outside them.
Play at Your Own Risk
Screams were part of the atmosphere at the McDonald’s playground in Rialto, California, but this one sounded different. Four-year-old Dennis Williams had come down the metal slide with a look of distress on his face instead of joy. He shook his hands as if they were covered in hot oil and made a tortured noise. Shortly after, a girl emerged from the slide with an angry pink mark on her bare calf.
The second-degree burns that sent Williams to urgent care in 1986 were among hundreds of PlayPlace- and PlayLand-related injuries that McDonald’s allegedly failed to report in the 1970s and ‘80s. The temperature of metal on hot summer days wasn’t the only risk the old-fashioned equipment posed to kids: Young visitors also suffered concussions, broken bones, and skull fractures, with most incidents originating with the jail-like Big Mac Climber jungle gym.
While incidents like Rialto’s flesh-searing slide occasionally made the news, the average McDonald’s customer was unaware of them. So was the United States government. Instead of disclosing the hazards of its older playgrounds, the company reportedly—and quietly—updated its play areas with padded, plastic equipment. The last of the Big Mac climbers were removed in 1997, but that wasn’t soon enough to save McDonald’s from scrutiny. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) launched an investigation into climber-related injuries following lawsuits and consumer complaints. In 1999, McDonald’s paid the CPSC a $4 million fine—among the largest the agency had ever collected at the time. That was just the start of their public relations nightmare.
An Unappetizing Environment
In the 21st century, Americans began to question the Disneyland-ification of its biggest fast food brand. Childhood obesity rates grew by more than 50 percent between the 1960s and 2000s, and McDonald’s became a common scapegoat for the epidemic. In 2004, the hit documentary Super Size Me examined the health consequences of regular visits to the chain. McDonald’s became synonymous with junk food, and the chain’s popularity with kids—a result of its own aggressive marketing—suddenly made it a target.
For children who only ate there occasionally, the nutritional content of the menu wasn’t the biggest threat to their health. They likely faced greater risks scrambling through the PlayPlace after their meal. In 2011, a mother and child development professor from Arizona swabbed bacteria samples from dozens of fast food playgrounds and had them tested. Lab results showed a concerningly high count and range of harmful pathogens, including coliform and staph bacteria. As one microbiologist who reviewed the survey told The New York Times, the results indicated that “these places are not cleaned properly or not cleaned at all.”
Though they had been moved indoors and remade in plastic in the name of safety, McDonald’s modern PlayPlaces were hardly innocuous. Because the areas were classified as “nonfood” zones, they weren’t held to the same cleanliness standards as the rest of the restaurant. Inspections were rare, and trash left in labyrinthine tubes went unnoticed. Even hypodermic needles have turned up in the play areas (though stories of children being pricked by them and dying are urban legends).
Between hosting kids covered in ice cream—or worse—the outdoor playgrounds were at least doused with rain and sunlight on a regular basis. Inside, the nooks and crevices of an enclosed PlayPlace became breeding grounds for bacteria.
All Work and No Play
McDonald’s was already in the process of phasing out its PlayPlaces when their unsanitary conditions made headlines. In response to accusations of manipulating kids into unhealthy diets, the chain tweaked many of its child-focused features or nixed them altogether. The Happy Meal was revamped with smaller portions and more nutritious sides in 2011, and Ronald was retired from commercials in 2016. Throughout the 2010s, McDonald’s redesigned many of its locations to have a sleeker, boxier look, and the PlayPlace rarely survived the transition. In 2020, the play areas that did remain were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic; many never reopened.
The fast food landscape has undergone significant changes in the past 50 years. The rise of delivery apps means customers are less likely to eat their meal in the restaurant or even their car, so chains have less incentive to create a desirable dining space. Even for locations still crawling with kids, the benefits of cleaning and maintaining a playground in today’s health-conscious age are rarely worth the costs.
Instead of courting young consumers, McDonald’s has turned its marketing efforts toward the last generation with fond memories of the company: Millennials. Retro Happy Meal toys for adults, a beverage-focused spin-off chain, and Grimace’s slightly creepy birthday promotion were attempts to appeal to the nostalgic demographic. But as ‘90s kids enter their thirties, sticky tube slides are one retro part of the brand that will likely stay in the past.