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Children in pursuit of toy give-aways steer parents to fast-food restaurants


SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Somewhere along the road, Don Weiss realized he had gone over the edge.

He and his 3-year-old daughter, Megan, were headed for their third McDonald's of the day in search not of a meal, but of a toy.

In five weeks they had amassed all but one Happy Meal toy -- a bear or a dog -- in a promotion Mr. Weiss cannot remember. Megan wanted that one. Nothing more, nothing less.

"I realized I was crazy," Mr. Weiss, a product supervisor from Sunnyvale, Calif., said recently at a Burger King as he watched his daughter play with the "Pocahontas" figurine that came with her dinner. "Here I was driving all over town looking for a little plastic toy."

Crazy, maybe. But not alone.

What parent has not pulled into a McDonald's, Burger King or other fast-food outlet week after week to get the latest kiddie giveaway? What mom or dad has not felt a stab of disappointment when the person on the drive-through speaker broke the news that it was Mufasa this week -- not Scar or some other desired toy -- that would come with Zach or Chloe's hamburger, small fries and kiddie drink package?

This frenzy is no accident. It is the byproduct of the same boomer population that has prompted retailers to produce pint-sized versions of adult clothing from the Gap, Guess? and Ralph Lauren. And it is making kiddie meal packages the cuisine of choice for families, many of whom say they eat at these fast-food outlets at least once a week.

This trend is the result of what population experts are calling the baby boomlet. Since 1989, the Census Bureau reports, there have been more than 4 million births in the United States -- a number considered especially significant because the last time the figure climbed that high was during the baby boom of 1946 to 1964. And the boomlet is proving to be a boon for businesses.

Though they will not release specific sales figures, according to Craig Tappin, spokesman for Northern California McDonald's, 200 of every 1,000 transactions, or 20 percent, involve Happy Meals.

Kim Miller, a spokeswoman for the Florida-based Burger King, which also offers a kiddie meal, said the chain gave away 7 million of Disney's "Pocahontas" figures in the first week of an eight-week promotion -- and that was before the movie opened in theaters.

And the kiddie meal packages are growing by leaps. Four years ago, Burger King handed out 8.5 million action figures, compared with the 50 million given out last year in "The Lion King" promotion alone.

For the uninitiated, kiddie meals are menu offerings available at many fast-food outlets targeted to children. A toy comes with a special food package featuring a hamburger, chicken or taco -- depending on the restaurant -- contained in a whimsical box or lunch bag.

The two most popular are McDonald's Happy Meal and Burger King's Kids Club Meal, in part because they are able to offer the best toys -- action figures generally tied to the latest merchandising craze.

This month, Burger King's "Pocahontas" offer is being countered by Power Rangers toys in a five-week promotion at McDonald's. Past giveaways at the chains have featured Spiderman, Goofy and Barbie figures.

It is the children who are up to date on offerings -- likely via television commercials promoting Meeko's (the raccoon from "Pocahontas") arrival at Burger King or the landing of the red Power Ranger at McDonald's.

"I gave them a choice of McDonald's or Burger King," said Jeanne Schaefer of Palo Alto, Calif., referring to her three children: Freddie, 8, Henry, 6, and Lucy, 2. "They picked McDonald's because they knew they had Power Rangers. How they knew, I have no idea."

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