By: Victoria Brawn
McDonald’s debuted their very first playground at the Illinois State Fair in 1972, alongside a
series of characters, games, and TV shows. This was part of the new ‘cradle-to-grave’ marketing
strategy under the idea that brand loyalty can start as early as the age of 2. Other fast food chains,
like Burger King and Chick-fil-A, quickly followed suit. Often an iconic part of most people’s
childhoods (who didn’t stop at McDonald’s to burn off some energy after spending a whole day
Christmas shopping?), the fast food restaurant playground is now just a distant memory for most
All of the indoor playgrounds were shut down during COVID, but not many (if any) have
opened back up. The last remaining fast food joint with a playground in WNY is the Burger King
on Military Road in Niagara Falls, and it remains closed from the pandemic. The McDonald’s on
Grand Island just recently closed on October 24 for renovations and took down its playplace,
which had also remained closed from the pandemic.
Even if there was a sudden uptick in fast food playgrounds, would anybody go? Probably not.
McDonald’s play places have earned a reputation for being unsafe, and in some ways, rightfully
so. From the 70’s to the 90’s McDonalds covered up over 400 injuries on their playgrounds and
had to pay millions of dollars in fines. As a result, they build the plastic tube fortresses of our
childhoods. All good, right? Not quite. One mom tested dozens of McDonald’s play places in six
different states to see if they were being cleaned. Spoiler alert: they’re not. She found strands of e
coli and other nasty diseases in them. Even Chuck E Cheese got rid of their ball pits and slides
due to sanitary concerns. Although they are supposed to be cleaned nightly by staff and
professionally once a month, the only chain with sanitary jungle gyms is Chick-fil-A. They
disinfect their play places with steam nightly and the corporation has strict rules about
professional monthly cleanings. The problem is that the Department of Health has no jurisdiction
over these areas, and there are no laws about keeping the areas clean. And what do you expect
from a company that is so bad at maintaining its equipment that there is a whole website
dedicated to keeping track of working ice cream machines? (mcbroken) It’s no
stretch of the imagination to imagine that the teenagers working their first job at McDonald’s
don’t want to crawl into a playground every night to scrub boogers and old food out of all of the
cracks and crevices. Considering most of the playgrounds were built in the nineties or early two
thousands, they’ve got a lot of damage despite still being safe. Most of the soft pads for climbing
have been ripped away, which leaves the bolts exposed, and teenagers often go in and vandalize.
Over the years, they have gotten pretty banged up. It’s not the kind of thing most parents want to
send their children into.
There are, of course, some things that are just rumors. The story about a three year old dying of
a heroin overdose after being stabbed by a discarded needle in a ball pit was proven false, as
well as the story about a rattlesnake nest in a ball pit.
All that aside, most kids aren’t interested in big playgrounds like that anymore. When most
families have iPads at the table, the empty play place that was built when their parents were kids
are just less interesting. Had the fast food restaurants invested more into their play spaces, they
may still be as popular as they once were. But the ones that still stand remain empty, and so the
season of the play place will soon come to a close.