In 1918, emerging from the hillsides of Marceline, Mo., a young lad would choose to defend his nation and fabricate his age in order to enlist in World War I. The boy would serve as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross, and after the war, discover his true destiny in California. This boy grew up to be the man named Ray Kroc.
If you pictured another noteworthy American entrepreneur while reading that description, you might have assumed we were talking about Walt Disney. The similarities between these two business tycoons are remarkable. On paper, it’s clear these two were destined to cross paths.
Kroc was quick to notice Disney’s influence on American Culture. The year was 1954, and Disney was a prominent player in the Hollywood landscape. While Disney’s shares went public, Kroc still only had four McDonalds stands to his name. Thus, with the upcoming opening of Disneyland, Kroc saw an opportunity to get the public interested in his fast food business model. What better way to get people familiar with the McDonald’s brand than having Cinderella herself serving french fries in front of Prince Charming’s carousel?
Kroc would later write a letter to Walt, reminding him that they served together in World War I as ambulance drivers, and explain that he was interested in discussing how McDonald’s could play a role in the upcoming theme park. Walt responded to Kroc’s invitation politely, stating that Kroc’s current state of business merely made him a minor concession salesman. Walt decided to implement food brands like Stouffer’s and Aunt Jemima’s to provide concession stands. As the years passed, the team decided to make their own Disney-branded food in the 1960s. Unfortunately, Kroc did not get his “happily ever after.” Instead, through cutthroat business practices, Kroc would turn the McDonald’s name into a global powerhouse on his own terms.
Fast forward to the 1980s — Michael Eisner, now the CEO of The Walt Disney Company, was on a mission to transform the Disney Parks into destinations that would attract young teenagers. At the forefront of this transformation was the development of Splash Mountain. The log flume ride takes visitors on a trek to the ‘Laughing Place’ and later down a 50-foot soaking wet plummet.
McDonald’s would also see a massive transformation in this timespan. No longer being the humble concession café Walt took them for in the ’60s, the corporate titan was now the number one fast food franchise on a global scale.
Now that the burger chain was officially on Disney’s radar, the two would officially come to terms to incorporate cross-marketing synergy that would benefit both empires; a match made in capitalist heaven.
Upon the construction of Splash Mountain, McDonald’s would implement its ‘Splash For Cash’ marketing campaign. Similar to the famous McDonald’s Monopoly competition, McDonald’s customers could compete for cash prizes and have the chance to score a free vacation to Walt Disney World to ride Splash Mountain. While McDonald’s kept up their side of the bargain, Disney’s Splash Mountain was hitting massive delays and operational issues.
The massive amount of disappointment over the delayed opening was only the beginning of this rocky relationship. Disney’s contract with McDonald’s ultimately forced the chain to only advertise movies under the Disney umbrella. Thus, popular franchises during this decade, including Tim Burton’s “Batman” and the newly-released “Star Wars” films, were off-limits at the time. Needless to say, neither major corporations were ‘loving it’ and began to seek business with other partners.
In the 1990s, denim was back in fashion, “Friends” graced our TV screens, and Disney was about to begin what would later be known as the “Disney Renaissance.”
Major fast-food chains had adapted to the current market, and found it profitable to start targeting young children as a prime demographic. Pizza Hut’s ‘Book It!’ marketing campaign, which encouraged school-aged children to read, was a massive success. The company would begin to pursue more children friendly marketing campaigns through Disney’s “Beauty & the Beast.” It was a simpler time, indeed. Back when you could get your own personal pan pizza, a drink, and a select “Beauty & the Beast” puzzle, all for the low price of $1.49.
Despite a robust marketing campaign, another fast food franchise had its eyes set on the “Beauty and the Beast” characters. Burger King has always, ironically, had a difficult time attempting to dethrone McDonald’s as the king of the fast food kingdom. However, in 1991, Burger King saw a prize opportunity to market Disney’s robust lineup of upcoming films as a part of their Kid’s Meal combo packages. These cross-promotion tie-ins included a Jr. Whopper Meal accompanied by toys from “Aladdin,” “Toy Story,” and many more of the hit films released during the Disney Renaissance.
McDonald’s was beginning to regret their bad breakup with the Mouse, and was ready to finally let them have it their way. McDonald’s would spend over a billion dollars in royalty fees to have exclusive rights to distribute toys for upcoming Disney and Pixar classics like “The Incredibles,” “Finding Nemo,” and even more cross-promotion tie-ins with the theme parks. Toy lines were later released based on the World Showcase at Epcot, and even a Disney’s Animal Kingdom campaign to coincide with the park’s grand opening.
Perhaps the most notable movie promotion McDonald’s pulled off was the 1998 campaign for Disney’s “Mulan.” This brought about more than just the cool toys for kids to add to their collection, but it introduced the insanely popular Szechuan sauce, whose legacy continues to this day. While Burger King flexed their muscles as a worthy opponent, McDonald’s managed to once again dominate the fast food industry.
This partnership spanned beyond the casual promotion, and Disney finally decided to let McDonald’s take a visit to their theme parks. After all these years, Kroc’s vision was finally brought into reality. Families began to line up in droves to get their hands on some piping-hot McDonald’s French fries in Fantasyland.
The new McDonald’s campaign brought franchise locations within all Walt Disney World’s theme parks. In the heart of Frontierland, you could satisfy your hunger at the Frontierland Fries wagon, or take a stroll to snatch some Fairfax Fries in the heart of Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
However, no park’s sponsorship was quite as unique as that of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. America’s infatuation with the Big Mac helped put Chester & Hester’s Dino-Rama on the Animal Kingdom Map. That’s right, the McDonald’s corporation sponsored the entirety of DinoLand, U.S.A. and provided a generous donation to the Dino Institute to help a particular Dr. Seeker “get that dino.”
The original iteration of the ‘Dinosaur’ attraction opened in 1998 under the name “Countdown to Extinction.” The ride’s queue area incorporated playful nods to McDonald’s, including colored pipes near the boarding station for the Time Rovers, each referencing the chemical composition of Ketchup, Mustard, and Mayonnaise. The popular attraction would later be renamed to “Dinosaur” to advertise the Disney film of the same name. As the ride continued to age, McDonald’s officially ended their sponsorship in 2008.
As the years went on, Disney and McDonald’s decided to officially part ways. The French fry shacks stapled across both Orlando and Anaheim parks closed their doors and resumed cooking Disney-branded meals once again.
While the theme parks themselves have moved on to incorporate newer brands such as Starbucks into their quick service locations, one McDonald’s can still be found on Disney property. Not too far from DinoLand U.S.A., guests can still chow down on a Big Mac meal right outside the gates to Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The sit-down location near Disney’s Blizzard Beach has received many facelifts over the years, and is currently in the process of a new update. The establishment is expected to open later this year.
While these two industry titans had a complicated dance of business affairs over the years, they continue to carry non-exclusive promotions of their respective brands. Happy Meals will still carry the occasional Disney promotional toy, which just proves despite their differences, Disney still manages to keep on ‘loving it’ to a certain extent.