An investigation.

By Meghan Overdeep
July 11, 2019
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Chances are good that you’ve come across a McDonald’s with a PlayPlace at some point in your life.

Kids or no kids, the iconic restaurant-adjacent playgrounds filled with screaming children, murky ball pits, and soaring structures made from colorful tubes are purposefully hard to miss. And that was especially true when restaurant playgrounds were at their most popular, from the 1970s to the 1990s.

Today, however, the fast food landscape looks a bit different. It’s not your imagination: McDonald’s PlayPlaces and other restaurant playgrounds are getting harder and harder to find.

“I’m not sure that they’re becoming a thing of the past, but we clearly don’t see growth in the opportunity for restaurants,” Darren Tristano, president of Technomic, told Eater.  “Brands like Chick-fil-A and McDonald’s, who have indoor play places—we’re not necessarily seeing them expanding and, in some cases, when stores are being rebuilt, they’re no longer including these play places.”

When McDonald’s branded playground equipment debuted in 1972, it was so much more than a play area. As Eater points out, it was a whole marketing campaign with commercials, a kids’ magazine, video games, and more. Not surprisingly, McDonald’s PlayPlaces became the place for kids to host their birthday parties. 

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So, what changed?

First, there were the safety concerns. McDonald's reportedly covered up the large number of injuries sustained on the Big Mac Climber, a raised piece of metal play equipment that kids frequently fell from, and didn’t discontinue it until 1997. And according to Reader’s Digest, the PlayPlace also suffered at the hands of the internet, which became a breeding ground for both true and untrue horror stories about everything from dirty diapers to used syringes lurking in the ball pits.

And finally, the way kids play has changed a lot since the 70s. A single plastic slide and padded floors are considered pretty boring by the iPad- and cellphone-toting children of today. As Tristano explained to Eater, because the playgrounds’ target audience is using them less and less, McDonald’s simply made the decision to put its funds elsewhere.

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