The kiddie-meal toys your children collect are more than child's play. They may be worth money.
They already are to Robert J. Sodaro of Norwalk, Conn., author of his first book, "Kiddie Meal Collectibles," a comprehensive price guide for the ever-growing market of fast-food toy collectibles.
"Many of these toys have a great level of ingenuity," says Sodaro, an avid superhero comic book, toy and gadget collector. "Some would be worth $3 to $5 at any toy store, and people are getting them for free."
As long as you buy a meal, that is.
What began in the late 1960s as a marketing ploy to attract kids and their parents to fast-food establishments is an increasingly independent effort to produce the most interesting toy, one that keeps a child's (and parent's) interest long after the meal has ended.
Burger Chef, now Hardee's, was one of the first restaurants to give toys with meals. These included character buttons, wooden nickels, hand puppets and drinking glasses now worth between $4 to $10 each in mint condition.
In 1979, McDonald's was the first to launch a national giveaway campaign tied to a meal, now known as the Happy Meal. The first set was made up of four circus animals--a lion, an elephant, a hippopotamus and a bear--now worth between $10 to $13 each.
Sodaro adds that recent efforts to tie toy giveaways to film releases and popular cartoon characters has made collecting these items more popular.
Alex G. Malloy of Vista, N.Y., the guide's co-author and pricing expert, says the market lacked a guide that qualified the collectible value of such toy giveaways.
Sodaro also says his book is a response to the category's growing popularity among children and collectors, with one difference. "Most price guides I see out there are about franchise toy prices, either specific to a franchise or about everybody," he says. "What I did was, in addition to a price guide, put in some upfront articles on collecting toys, why we collect toys, where to look for them."
The book also features more than 500 photographs of the most popular current and past toys, up-to-date values for individual items and complete sets, in and out of their original packaging (mint in package or mint out of package), profiles of fast-food restaurants and their premium programs and tips for locating, collecting and grading items.
Determining the value of fast-food toys is not an exact science, says Malloy. It depends on the toy's popularity, its availability, plus a shot of luck. But if a toy is still in its original packaging, it is worth twice what an unwrapped toy would be worth.
Sodaro also wrote anecdotal accounts about interesting collections he discovered while researching the book, including a Westchester County, N.Y., McDonald's in which there are two large displays of all the McDonald's Happy Meal toys released in the last 20 years.
Sodaro says much of a toy's success and value hinges on its originality, listing McDonald's Inspector Gadget series and the 15th anniversary of the "Happy Meal Giveaway" train set among his favorites.
"It [the train] had a theme, different interlocking pieces," he says. "Once you assembled [the pieces], you got a great toy."
Sodaro adds that collectibles have a personal value when they are used.
"I'm a big proponent that toys are only toys and they are meant to be played with," he says. "Part of their value to me is in what you do with them."
Not to worry, Malloy says. "Get two and put one away."