The following is a true story. It actually happened to Nancy and last Wednesday night. As we were driving from New Hampshire down to Peabody, MA. Where I was scheduled to speak at the Peabody Historical Society about Pleasure Island.
En route, Nancy started to get hungry. I suggested that -- in order to save time -- we quickly get off the highway, go do the drive-up thing at some fast food joint, grab some eats and then get back on the highway ASAP. She agrees ... which is why we ended up stopping at the McDonalds in Chelmsford, MA.
Now keep in mind that I'm the one who's actually driving the car. So we roll up to the outside speaker, place our order, then pull around to the first drive-thru window. Where we're supposed to pay for our food.
So we pull up to that window. And -- according to what Nancy tells me -- there was this absolutely stunning woman working the drive-thru. Someone possible of Malaysian descent. With beautiful dark skin and oriental features.
But me? I never really noticed this woman. I mean, I paid her ... But she didn't really register with me.
Why for? Because just behind this allegedly stunning beauty, on a nearby counter, there was a freshly opened cardboard box full of brand-new McDonalds Happy Meals toys. And -- as she handed me my change -- I was craning my neck to look around this beautiful girl. To see if the toys behind her were from the restaurant chain's upcoming "Brother Bear" promotion.
Oh the shame of it! Here I am, an allegedly grown man. Yet I'm hopelessly addicted to collecting Disney-realted McDonalds Happy Meal toys. Is that geek-like behavior or what?
How did I start down this ridiculous road? I can pretty much trace things back to the Summer of 1991, when Walt Disney Pictures put "101 Dalmatians" back into theaters for the fifth time in 30 years. As part of the studio's cross promotional efforts for that film, Disney cut a deal with McDonalds. Which is why that fast food chain began offering ("For a limited tiome only!") four "101 Dalmatians" themed toys as giveaways with their Happy Meals. If I'm remembering correctly, the figures that the restaurant chain offered its customers back in 1991 were Pongo the Pup, Lucky the Puppy, the Colonel and Sgt. Tibbs and Cruella De Vil.
Anyway ... my good friend, Eric Craven, and I were headed to the movies. To see "Terminator 2: Judgement Day" at a multiplex in Natick, MA. As we were driving to the theater, Eric turns to me and says "I'm hungry. Can we go to Mickey D's before we hit the cinema?" I say "Sure."
So we drive up to the McDonalds that's off of Route 9 in Framingham. And - seeing as we've got some time to kill - we opt to go inside and eat there.
So we're in line at the counter. And -- as I'm standing there -- I see this child go by, happily clutching a Pongo the Pup toy. And I think to myself: "That's a pretty good looking '101 Dalmatians' toy. In fact, I don't ever remember see a Pongo the Pup toy before. Maybe I should get one of those to add to my Disneyana collection." So I step up to the counter and say -- in a clear adult voice -- "I'd like a Happy Meal. The one with the dog, please."
So the smiling McDonalds employee takes my money & then hands me a Happy Meal box. So I take it back to the table that Eric had found for us, sit down and open the box. And - sure enough - there's a dog inside (Along with my burger & fries). But it's Lucky, not Pongo.
So back to the counter I go. Somewhat embarrassed, I explain that I had wanted the adult Dalmatian toy, not the cute little puppy. The McDonalds employee then apologized, but explains that their restaurant had just run out of Pongos. Which is why I unluckily ended with Lucky.
But came the two sentences that changed my life. The two sentences that I wish I'd never heard. The McDonalds employee then leans across the counter and says: "You know, if you've really got your heart set on getting a Pongo, you what I'd do? I'd drive around to some of the other McDonalds in the area and see which toys they're giving away today."
And you know what? That's exactly what we did that afternoon. Cruised up and down the length of Route 9, with Eric continually yammering "But Jim ... I thought we were going to see 'Terminator 2'." And me saying "We are, Eric. Just as soon as we find that damned dog."
Of course, the second McDonalds that we visited that day didn't have any Pongos for sale either. But they did offer a Colonel and a Sgt. Tibbs with their Happy Meals.
Now don't ask me why, but I ended up getting a Happy Meal at that restaurant. Mostly because I thought that -- if I crammed some food in Eric's face -- he'd stopped complaining about how he was missing out on all the senseless violence that he was sure to enjoy while watching that the AH-nauld movie.
So while Eric wolfed down that cheeseburger, I looked out at the Lucky the Puppy and the Colonel and Sgt. Tibbs that I had set up on my dashboard and ... Damn it! I still could have gotten out then. I could have done what Nancy Reagan said we should do and just said "No." I mean, it's not like I actually needed a Pongo the Pup toy.
Looking back on this life changing event, I find it extremely ironic that -- just weeks previous -- I had attended the 1991 National Fantasy Fan Club's annual convention. Where Imagineer Craig McNair Wilson spoke to a room full of Disney dweebs and warned us that "... If you have just one of something, that's alright. If you acquire two of something, you're treading on thin ice. But once you own three of something ... That's a collection, my friend. And once you start a collection of anything, you'll be on the prowl for the rest of your life."
So -- with just two of those "101 Dalmatians" Happy Meal toys in hand -- I still might have been able to escape. Not give in to the madness. But at the very next McDonalds that Eric and I drove to ... Guess what? They didn't have any Pongos left either. But they were offering a cute little Cruella De Vil toy. And -- given that I had already acquired the Lucky and the Colonel and Sgt. Tibbs toys -- I thought: "Oh, what the hell. I might as well as get the Cruella toy too."
And -- with that one single purchase -- my fate was sealed, folks. Without even realizing what had just happened, I had become a Disney-themed McDonalds Happy Meal toy collector. I was now doomed to wander the earth 'til the end of my days, dropping by McDonalds after McDonalds after McDonalds, forever asking "What toy do you have? What toy do you have?"
Why do I do it? More importantly, why is this such a hard habit to break? I don't know what to tell you, people. Other than to say: I actually get this weird sort of buzz after I've managed to collect all the toys in a particular McDonalds Happy Meal set. A strange sense of accomplishment that I now trace back to my search for Pongo on that hot summer afternoon back in 1991.
(FYI: I actually did manage to finally find a McDonalds that afternoon that still had some Pongos in stock. Mind you, we ended up driving around 10 different restaurants before we finally found that particular McDonalds. But there was much rejoicing as we carried Pongo back to the car. Particularly from Eric. Who kept asking me: "So NOW can we go watch AH-nauld terminate people?").
So then we headed off to the cinema to see "Terminator 2." And -- after the movie was over -- I dropped Eric off at his apartment, and then headed for home. Once I arrived there, I carried my hard-won treasures into the house. Then -- almost as a joke -- I lined those "101 Dalmatians" Happy Meal toys up on my mantlepiece. As if they were some sort of hard won trophy.
Which -- in a way -- I guess they were. Which is why I kept the Happy Meal toys there for a couple of weeks. When they came to my apartment, people would ask me about them. And I'd then launch into the tale of my dogged pursuit of the "101 Dalmatians" Happy Meal toys. And the more I told that story, the more I thought: "I had fun trying to chase down all four of those McDonalds toys. I'll have to do that again sometime."
Fast forward 12 years. I'm now downstairs in my office, pounding away at the keyboard. If I turn my head to the right, I can see a complete set of "Treasure Planet" Happy Meal toys (I.E. the action figures as well as the cool orb that you could build out of the additional pieces that came along with each figure in this set) high up on one of my library shelves. Below those is a complete set of "Monsters, Inc." Happy Meal toys (Each of these figures came with their own working door.)
I personally collected each and every figure in those sets. And -- if I turn my head to the left -- I can see my complete set of "Lilo & Stitch" bobbling Happy Meal toys. Which is on a book shelf right above my complete set of "Finding Nemo" talking / light-up Happy Meal toys. Figures that I also collected personally, one toy at a time.
Mind you, these are just the sets of McDonalds toys that I currently have out on display, folks. Elsewhere in the basement, I have boxes upon boxes full of other completed sets of Happy Meal toys. Figures that I have doggedly chased through the years down in McDonalds up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Out in the state of California. Even as far away as Hawaii.
Why do I continue to do this? Nancy asks me that very same question. And -- to be honest -- I don't have a particularly coherent answer for this query. Force of habit? Because it's there? Because I enjoy doing it?
You know, the more I think about it, the more I realize that it's really that last answer That I actually enjoy the act of collecting. Going out and doggedly pursuing these toys. The thrill of the hunt, so to speak. Toughing it out. Visiting McDonalds after McDonalds after McDonalds until I'm finally able to pull together the completed set of ... well ... whatever it is the new series of Disney-related Happy Meal toys appears to be.
Mind you, I could cheat. By that I mean: I could go on eBay and just buy a completed set of Happy Meal toys. For example, right now, there's someone on there who's selling off a complete set of the "Mulan" McDonalds figures from 1998 here as well as a complete set of "The Jungle Book" Happy Meal toys for 1997 here.
And I know of several McDonalds around the country who have actually begun catering to the less ambitious collectors out there. The folks who aren't willing to waste the time, money or gas necessary to drive from restaurant to restaurant to restaurant in search of the latest toys.
So how do these McDonalds cater to couch potatoes who collect? They do so by offering to sell you -- for one set price, mind you -- a complete set of whichever Happy Meal toys they're currently selling at that time. (Heads up to all you Disneyland regulars out there who also collect Happy Meal toys. The McDonalds that's right across from the entrance to the park -- You know, the one at 1500 S. Harbor Boulevard? -- current offers this service. So keep that in mind the next time you're frantically charging around, trying to put together a complete set of the "Finding Nemo" figures. )
But me personally? I prefer to do things the old fashioned way. Which means going from McDonalds to McDonalds, always asking the same question: "Which toy do you have?"
You know, I just thought of something. You want to know the OTHER reason that I really enjoy collecting Disney-related McDonalds Happy Meal toys? Because it embarrasses the hell out of Nancy. And -- given that I don't really drink, smoke or gamble ... well, a man has to do SOMETHING to annoy the woman in his life.
And in my case, it's the dogged pursuit of those Disney-related Happy Meal toys. Which is admittedly geeky behavior. But -- hey -- at least it keeps me off the streets at night.
Unless -- of course -- you're talking about later this month. On October 31st, to be exact. That's the day when McDonalds introduces its new set of "Brother Bear" Happy Meal toys. So you can bet that I'll be hitting the road on Halloween night, as I try to get a jump on collecting all eight figures in this series.
Okay, now that I've come out of the closet (so to speak) and revealed myself to be a Disney-related Happy Meal toy collector, who else has a geeky, somewhat embarrassing story to share? About their collection of rare, unique or just plain strange Disney-and/or-movie-related items?