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Where Have All the Fast-Food Playgrounds Gone?

As brands shift their marketing away from kids, plastic slides and ball pits disappear

On a Saturday afternoon at a McDonald’s in Brooklyn — one of the newer McDonald’s made to more like a cafe than a fast-food restaurant — “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?” is playing over the Muzak speakers, and the current Happy Meal toys are Hot Wheels and miniature Barbie dolls. The Playplace, during what should be prime Saturday afternoon birthday party hours, is empty and locked. Between the song, the toys, and the locked playground, this McDonald’s looks like it stopped trying to attract kids in 1995.

A table of boys, around ages 8 through 13, are talking excitedly, half on their phones and half chatting. Would they be in the playground even if it were open? Today, these standard modular play structures — padded floors, platforms, polyurethane foam piping, a single plastic slide — are probably considered boring after age 9. At another McDonald’s, on Brooklyn’s Rockaway Beach, the indoor playground has been removed and replaced by more seating. At a Chuck E. Cheese’s near Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, a place where playgrounds are admittedly secondary to a casino of kids’ games, the usually standard play area is gone, too.

How much do kids today care if McDonald’s has a playground? They have iPads and Game Boys, and their parents might not even be taking them to fast-food restaurants anyway. According to Technomic, a food-service research and consulting firm, families with kids going to McDonald’s fell from 18.6 percent in 2011 to 14.6 percent in 2014.

Darren Tristano, president of Technomic, thinks that we’re unlikely to see fast-food restaurants focusing on playgrounds again anytime soon. “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,” Tristano says. “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.”

Is taking away the playground really a bad thing if kids can still play at other community areas? Maybe not. But families will continue to go to McDonald’s, and there’s something sad about kids consuming a Happy Meal and having nowhere to expend energy except on their phones or iPads. During harsh winter weather, and especially in rural or suburban areas, a fast-food playground might be the only economical place for a child to move his or her body: A visit to a specialty indoor playground can cost as much as $12 per child, while a Happy Meal only costs three bucks.

Indoor playgrounds are unlikely to ever fully disappear, especially for McDonald’s, which is still the place to take your kids for chicken nuggets and a few hours’ reprieve after a shopping trip. But could we be seeing fewer of these structures as more chains shift their marketing away from kids — and more toward millennials?

Paige Johnson is something of a playground expert. When she’s not running a nanotechnology company, she’s a playground advocate and historian who heads the blog Playscapes. Johnson believes the nature of play is evolving away from a static, specific structure — especially the structure seen in modular “post and platform” play areas and not the more architectural, playground-as-art spaces that you might see in a children’s museum.

Johnson uses Pokémon Go as an example of playtime today: an individualized experience without geographic boundaries. “That’s the direction that play is heading,” she says. “Not just as an experience that’s divorced from any location, but also an experience that resides with the player and is individualized for the player. And the question is, how does any static playground, whether that’s a community playground or fast-food playground, compete with that experience or conform to new expectations of what play is?”

McDonald’s branded playground equipment debuted in 1972, when McDonaldland, featuring a set of characters marketed to kids, appeared at the Illinois State Fair. McDonaldland featured a trippy, vaguely sinister-looking fast-food fantasy world consisting of a cop (Officer Big Mac), a small-time criminal (Hamburglar), a pirate (Captain Crook), and a mayor with a giant cheeseburger for a head (Mayor McCheese). In the coming years, McDonald’s first playgrounds were based around these characters, with Officer Big Mac climbing structures, Captain Crook spiral slides, and more.

In Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser describes McDonaldland as borrowing liberally from Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom, which is likely true, considering the play equipment was designed by Don Ament, a former Disney set designer. “Hoping that nostalgic childhood memories of a brand will lead to a lifetime of purchases, companies now plan ‘cradle-to-grave’ advertising strategies,” Schlosser wrote. “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.”

McDonaldland wasn’t just a play area; it was a whole marketing campaign with commercials, a kids’ magazine, video games, and The Wacky Adventures of Ronald McDonald, a direct-to-video series made by the Rugrats creators. Most of us probably had at least one birthday party at McDonald’s, our parents offering friends orders of four-piece chicken nuggets or a small cheeseburger, followed by a cake bought from the local grocery-store bakery.

The concept of the physical play area was popular enough that in the early ’90s, McDonald’s branched off the Playplace into a standalone brand of indoor playgrounds. Called Leaps & Bounds, it charged parents $4.95 to give kids unlimited access to a sculpted indoor play area; the first location, which debuted in Naperville, IL in 1991, totaled 11,000 square feet of play areas. By 1994, McDonald’s merged Leaps & Bounds with Discovery Zone and Blockbuster Entertainment Corp. The only remnant of that era that exists today, in the restaurants anyway, is the occasional glimpse of Ronald McDonald.

According to Tristano, it doesn’t make much business sense for a fast-food restaurant to invest in a playground now. The square footage alone costs money, not to mention the equipment, the maintenance, the safety hazards, and the insurance costs. “Over the last 30 or 40 years, we’ve seen the larger playground shifting to a smaller, condensed playground and, in some cases, moving outside, which doesn’t help in the winter. It’s evolved to a point where it’s smaller and much less relevant.”

It’s impossible to talk about fast-food indoor playgrounds without considering some of the main strikes against them: the public perception of these play areas as filthy and the liability associated with them. Myriad urban legends have circulated for years about things buried in ball pits, for instance. (Has a heroin needle ever actually been found in one? According to Snopes, no.)

That said, playgrounds can be undeniably gross places: Strains of coliform bacteria and staphylococcus and fecal bacteria have been found at poorly maintained play facilities. Dr. Erin Carr-Jordan, a playground sanitation vigilante and, more formally, the founder of Kids Play Safe, a research organization “committed to protecting the health, safety and well-being of children,” was banned from eight Phoenix-area McDonald’s in 2011 presumably for swabbing play areas for germs. A cross-country journey during which she tested the playgrounds of six national chains in both high and low socioeconomic, rural, and urban areas turned into a crusade.

“I think the pervasive problem, and how it resonated with people in general, was enough to cause a response from parents across the board,” Carr-Jordan says. “For business owners and operators, many of them — and this is just my assumption — didn’t want to do the work to keep them, and it wasn’t necessarily worth the hassle of actually going in and maintaining the equipment and cleaning it on a regular basis. I think in McDonald’s case, that’s the reason you see so many of them closed.”

Surprisingly, there are no state or federal regulations for playground cleanliness or maintenance, and they’re not regulated in many counties and cities. Carr-Jordan has been working to change that, successfully doing so in her home state of Arizona. Kids Play Safe recently partnered with Chuck E. Cheese’s to, according to a press release, “collaborate on common goals to provide a safe healthy play environment for kids.” Chuck E. Cheese’s is the first major brand to work with Kids Play Safe, which could be a small step forward to improving the reputation of restaurant playgrounds.

“It’s a very easy fix,” Carr-Jordan says. “The problem is related to a) cleanliness, b) maintenance of the structures, and c) if people are cleaning it, they’re using toxic chemicals. Chuck E. jumped two feet in and said, ‘Okay, we absolutely agree to clean this once per shift. We’re going to change front- and back-of-house to all green products.’ And they agreed to look at the maintenance and integrity of their structures according to the standards.”

Indoor playgrounds, more than anything, seem to be in a state of flux. Playgrounds are woefully behind the times when it comes to integrating the more responsive, digital play experiences that kids now expect. Some restaurants and McDonald’s franchises are choosing to eliminate playgrounds in favor of more seating and lower land costs, while others are being expanded to encourage active lifestyles for kids. “McDonald’s has always placed a special focus on the family experience and will continue that tradition,” Lauren Altmin, a rep from McDonald’s PR, says. “Over the years, the evolution of the Playplace has allowed franchisees, who choose to include the feature in their restaurants, the ability to cater to their local community and customer needs.”

And as it turns out, the golden arches might be one step ahead. Last year, the world’s “largest entertainment McDonald’s” opened in Orlando, complete with a custom-built 22-foot-tall play structure; an even taller (and illuminated!) Ronald McDonald; and the kitsch addition of a singing, animatronic “Mac Tonight,” the chain’s late-night lounge singer spokesman from the ’80s. It’ll be interesting to see if more franchise owners pick up on this idea.

“I’d love to see them revisit the idea of their kitschy play sculptures,” Johnson says. “A series of arches the kids could play on would be every bit as much fun as what they’ve got and would contribute to their design aesthetic. I think the future is towards things that are more visually rich and compelling, and that do compete with a digital environment.”

There are myriad opportunities to make indoor playgrounds, simply put, really cool. Corporations can also look to Europe for inspiration: The Swarovski Crystal World playscape in Austria and Volkswagen’s super-modern Mobiversum are excellent, albeit slightly extreme, versions of what can happen when corporate money meets playground architecture. “Abstraction allows the child the space in their imagination to make it anything they want it to be,” Johnson says. “You can’t morph a physical object in the way that you can constantly morph a digital one. The playground world has not been innovative in that way. I think McDonald’s did lead in that idea once — a playspace along with a restaurant — and they could lead there again if they were more thoughtful about it.”

Kelsey Lawrence is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Jackie Ferrentino is an illustrator based in Brooklyn, NY.
Editor: Erin DeJesus