Article by Joanna Sarah-Freedman
If you were born and raised in the 90s, McDonald’s birthday parties were the best present you could get.
It might be hard to believe now, but there really was a time when we actively looked forward to rolling around in a germ-filled ball pit and eating French fries that had been fingered by as many hands as physically possible. How times change.
However, no matter what the current social stigma attached to partying might be, McDonald’s birthday parties were and always will be awesome.
Why, then, are they no longer such a big deal? Here’s what you need to know about an iconic part of fast food folklore.
McDonald’s birthday parties were legendary in the ’90s (Credit: PA)
Do McDonald’s still do birthday parties?
Although many people associate McDonald’s birthday parties with the ’90s and ’00s, McDonald’s birthday parties are still an active part of the chain’s business model.
The McDonald’s UK website states that prospective partygoers should “speak to the restaurant manager at the particular McDonald’s restaurant that you intend on visiting”. They will then be able to confirm whether a party is an option.
And it’s not just Britain that caters for McDonald’s birthday parties either.
In Australia, for instance, customers have a choice between two different birthday party packages at over 200 separate locations.
McDonald’s birthday parties aren’t as popular as they once were (Credit: PA)
What happens at a McDonald’s birthday party?
Back in their heyday, McDonald’s birthday parties were an essential, if admittedly chaotic, part of any celebration.
Although formats differed according to location, the basic schedule looked something like this:
You plus 20 other frenzied, yowling children would descend on poor unsuspecting McDonald’s employees after an afternoon of bowling/movie watching or some combination of the two.
There would be a designated quarantine zone of two to three tables near the back of the restaurant to try and keep everyone in check. This never worked.
Partygoers would receive cardboard crowns and balloons as a peace offering. This only made everyone more agitated.
Everyone would get a Happy Meal – no exceptions. One person might try and order a Filet-O-Fish. Everyone would bully this person for the rest of the day until they cried and left early.
If parents were lucky, there would be a soft play area to contain the mob. If they weren’t, the dining room became a warzone.
The whole party would fight over the best Happy Meal toys in a chilling display of capitalistic Darwinism. The strong preyed on the weak, leaving the losers to choose between McDonald’s books and a plastic gardening kit.
In the days before fruit bags were a Happy Meal must-have, vitamins were strictly banned from McDonald’s birthday parties. It was like an e-number-fuelled Apocalypse Now. We loved the smell of McNuggets in the morning.
Happy Meals were the only option at kids’ birthday parties (Credit: PA)
The downfall of the McDonald’s party
Understandably, times have changed somewhat. Today’s McDonald’s birthday parties are more sanitised affairs. Strict rules and regulations have replaced the carnage of the ’90s.
Perhaps this dramatic change in vibe explains why McDonald’s birthday parties aren’t the cultural force they once were.
Without the genuine element of danger and chaotic tint, everything has become a little more vanilla.
Admittedly, it probably makes the experience more enjoyable for employees. But when you sand down the edges on something, inevitably you lose part of its character.
While we miss the parties, the same can’t be said for creepy Ronald McDonald (Credit: PA)
Why did Mcdonald’s get rid of Ronald?
Another intrinsic part of the authentic McDonald’s birthday party experience was the frankly terrifying figure of Ronald McDonald.
Whenever there were scenes of unfettered joy occurring at a restaurant, Ronald would appear to traumatise the guests into stunned silence.
However, for several years, Ronald’s demonic visage has been notable by its absence. This is true across the McDonald’s brand, and not just for parties.
The reason for this is thanks to some seriously nefarious pranking in the summer of 2016.
All over the world people began reporting sightings of creepy clowns, menacing towns and cities at night. In some cases, the clowns engaged in seriously threatening behaviour.
In this atmosphere, McDonald’s made the executive decision to retire the character. As McDonald’s spokesman Terri Hickey said at the time: “McDonald’s and franchisees in the local markets are mindful of the current climate around clown sightings in communities and as such are being thoughtful in respect to Ronald McDonald’s participation in community events for the time being”.
Since then, Ronald has taken a backseat in McDonald’s marketing.
McDonald’s still have options if you want to celebrate your big day with the Golden Arches (Credit: PA)
What can you get on your birthday for free at McDonald’s?
Officially, at least according to the McDonald’s UK website, there are no birthday freebies at the Golden Arches.
However, there is also plenty of evidence to dispute this claim.
For instance, Freebie Depot describes how many McDonald’s give free Happy Meals to kids on their birthdays.
Clearly the arrangement is not set in stone, but it certainly suggests that there are still benefits to a McDonald’s birthday