In fevered pursuit of Happy Meal Smurfs: a quest for the ages

March 26, 2024 — by Emily Wu
Photo by Emily Wu
The 14 smurfs that are the pride and joy of my childhood. 
Sweat, tears and hundreds of chicken nuggets went into building my most prized collection to date. 

When my family first moved to California, little did my mom know that a significant portion of her time would be spent driving to every McDonald’s store around town in search of Smurfs. In 2011, McDonald’s launched a Smurfs figurine collection for the Happy Meal toys, and we fell victim to the company’s marketing genius.

My obsession with Smurfs started with the mobile game “Smurfs Village.” Much like “Hayday” or “Stardew Valley,” “Smurfs Village” is a village-building game where players can collect revenue from growing crops or running shops and use it to expand their territory. Also available to buy are decorations or new mushroom huts for different Smurfs to live in. 

The game is surprisingly well developed; each Smurf even has a unique mushroom hut design, and it launches a mini-game when you click the hut. Huddled over the shared family iPad, my sister and I spent hours fawning over our growing village and the little blue people who worked in it.

So it’s little surprise that when McDonald’s launched a new Smurf figurine series, I jumped at the chance to get a set of all 16. It included all of my favorites from “Smurfs Village,” from Jokey who would deliver the daily prizes in his gift box to the Painter Smurf where you could play his mini-game and color drawings of the other Smurfs. Fueled by our Ahab-like obsession, my mom, my sister and I dutifully bought countless Happy Meals and awaited pulling out the smiling Smurf inside the red box. 

I became so skilled at judging 6-piece chicken nugget meals — back in the days when they still had a decently high percentage of real chicken — that one glance was enough for me to tell whether the complimentary apple package would be sweet or sour.

However, we quickly ran into an issue with our Smurf collecting system. Each McDonald’s only had a few types, and some of them were much more common than others. 

With the small number of  McDonald’s stores located by our old house in San Jose, we only had access to a small fraction of the total collection. We were determined to overcome such limitations. Searching through Google Maps to map out all of the McDonald’s stores within a reasonable driving distance for an afternoon trip, we were able to quickly gather more Smurfs. 

While journeying to these far-away McDonald’s, we drove through nearby cities I had never visited before, passed by picturesque parks around town and explored plazas that were all new to me. Our search gave us an appreciation for the surrounding area. 

One by one our collection grew, and with it, our strategy improved. We made two big realizations: First, you didn’t actually need to buy the whole Happy Meal package to get the toy — you could pay a smaller fee to just get the Smurf. Second, calling ahead to confirm if a McDonald had a Smurf  we were missing was an essential step as we narrowed our search for the gaps in our collection. Typical conversations went like this:

“Hello, is this McDonald’s?”

“Yes, what would you like to order?”

“Do you have the Brainy Smurf?”

“The what?”

“For the kids’ Happy Meal toy, it’s a Smurf with black glasses that’s holding a big walkie-talkie?”

“Oh! [looks through the toy drawer] Unfortunately, I don’t see one.”

“Haha that’s OK we’ll try another store.” [hangs up]

Even when we visited my grandparents in Southern California, our search simply switched locations. Traveling was an advantage, as it allowed us access to McDonald’s that we would have never visited otherwise. Even on vacation to Las Vegas over the summer, we left the main Strip attraction to drive from one McDonald’s to another through the suburbs. I was surprised to see that not all of Vegas was covered in tall buildings and flashy lights. Just a few blocks out from the center it almost seemed the same as any regular town. 

After months of afternoon trips and eating hundreds of chicken nuggets, we tracked down 14  of the 16 Smurfs featured in the Happy Meal series. 

Sadly, we were unable to find Papa Smurf and Jokey. 

In retrospect, though, I realize getting all 16 wasn’t the point of the experience. Instead, it was the good times I spent with my family pursuing something beyond ourselves. Childish as it may seem to still have our almost complete set of Smurfs over 10 years later — no, we haven’t yet sold them at a garage sale — those precious Smurfs are an emblem of my childhood and transition to America that I will treasure forever.

8 views this week