Before there were iPhones and Netflix, there were McDonald’s Playlands and PlayPlaces. Visible from a distance, these enormous, colorful tubes rose like a monument from the low-slung building and wound their way around the exterior. Under the golden arches stood a configuration of ball pits, ropes, swings, slides, climbing towers, and more. An indoor children’s jungle gym that was once a popular destination for families nationwide. The best part? It was free.
I grew up in Vietnam, so I’ve never personally experienced such places myself. But for some of my friends, it’s a place reminiscent of a ’90s childhood in America, one that they have mixed feelings about. Some say these fast food parks were fun, while others balk in disgust at the memory. Regardless of differing opinions, the one thing they all agreed on was that they provided a sense of freedom—one that might now increasingly be slipping away.
These once ubiquitous indoor playgrounds have a complicated and fraught history. Initially a source of excitement, awe, and relief, they ultimately became a magnet for injuries, fines, and at least one vigilante mom. It all began with that largest of fast food chains, McDonald’s.
The 1970s was a time of great change, both for America and for McDonald’s. During this decade, the chain began marketing heavily toward children. Writing in Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser describes McDonald’s efforts to cultivate affinity for the brand.
“They have come to believe what Ray Kroc and Walt Disney realized long ago — a person’s ‘brand loyalty’ may begin as early as the age of 2,” Schlosser wrote. This might explain why McDonalds hired Don Ament, a renowned Hollywood set designer, to design the first playground equipment that eventually debuted at the Illinois State Fair in 1972.
Aptly called McDonaldland, it was wildly different than anything available for children at the time. Like stepping into a fantasy world, McDonaldland’s design incorporated several characters that would continue to crop up in marketing materials for decades: Mayor McCheese, Officer Big Mac, the Hamburglar, Evil Grimace, Captain Crook, and more. It was all intended to provide children with a memorable experience, one that created fond associations with McDonald’s characters.
McDonaldland served as a precursor for what would become the play structures at McDonald’s locations nationwide. The original version, called Playland, was made of metal and designed for individual outdoor play. Toward the late ’80s, however, it was redesigned into a safer option called PlayPlace, an indoor contraption “protected by thick padding, fabric, and nets.”
Other fast food chains soon followed suit, including Burger King and Chick-fil-A. The concept was so popular that in the early 1990s, McDonald’s even created a standalone indoor playground separate from the restaurant itself. It was dubbed Leaps and Bounds; the first one opened in 1991 in Naperville, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. With a $4.95 admission fee, parents could let their children run free in a paradise of tubes, ball pits, and climbing walls for as long as they liked. But by 1994, McDonald’s merged Leaps and Bounds with Discovery Zone and Blockbuster Entertainment Corp, effectively putting an end to its expansion efforts.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, many children climbed up giant metal hamburger buns and Big Mac–branded jungle gyms. Unbeknownst to many parents (and perhaps even McDonald’s itself), the play structures’ metal backing was rough on children. It resulted in more than 400 injuries that McDonald’s failed to report to government authorities. By 1999, the company was facing a $4 million fine from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), two years after the last of the metal climbers were removed.
In addition to these safety concerns, customers began to question whether these play areas were cleaned and disinfected regularly. Stories, both allegedly true and entirely fabricated, began to circulate about children finding things like needles and used condoms during their time in the jungle gym, made worse by the fact that there were no federal or state regulations mandating the regular cleaning and upkeep of such play areas.
The lack of regulation was so disconcerting that it led one parent, Dr. Erin Carr-Jordan, founder of Kids Play Safe, to become a sanitation advocate. She was so convinced of play areas’ extreme filth that she traveled to several states and swabbed the equipment for samples, then sent it off to a lab with her own money. The result? Nearly all the areas she sampled were filled with some kind of bacteria.
The rise in public scrutiny, coupled with the decline in families dining out (according to Eater, it fell from 18.6% in 2011 to 14.6% in 2014), meant that children’s play areas became more of an insurance liability for fast food chains. Thus, McDonald’s began to shift its marketing away from kids toward millennials. (Ironically, millennials are the ones who grew up in the ’90s and are most likely to have been exposed to such play spaces.)
Today’s kids are exposed to more technology than ever before, so their distractions while dining out might not need to be strictly physical—they can watch an iPad right at the table. Furthermore, with the pandemic changing the way we shop and eat—that is, more drive-thru and pickup orders—it’s no wonder that play areas are now something rare to be treasured, like any good ol’ millennial memory.
It depends on where you live. McDonald’s has a page on its website where you can filter location maps to only show those restaurants with a PlayPlace (either indoor, outdoor, or both). Chick-fil-A’s FAQ page indicates that all of the chain’s play areas are closed “out of an abundance of caution.” However, this information contradicts a local newspaper’s announcement of a Chick-fil-A play area that reopened at the Lake Travis location in Bee Cave, Texas earlier this year. Burger King, meanwhile, has no information listed on its website about whether or not its remaining play areas are still open.
The best thing to do is to simply check with your local franchise owner before you arrive, and maybe cross your fingers for the continued existence of these imperfect sources of fast food entertainment.