When I was a kid, we had two big plastic towers next to the family room TV that held our most-watched VHS tapes. We had the Disney classics, An American Tail, and, down at the bottom, a growing collection of short animated films featuring the McDonald's mascot Ronald McDonald.
Released on VHS between 1998 and 2003 and available exclusively at McDonald’s, The Wacky Adventures of Ronald McDonald was a direct-to-video animated series produced by Klasky-Csupo, the legendary studio behind Rugrats, Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, and my personal favorite As Told By Ginger, among other hits for Nickelodeon. You could grab the first episode for just $3.49—approximately $5.67 in today's dollars, if you can believe it—with any other purchase.
According to the blog Nothing But Cartoons, which published a two-part recap of the first episode, “Scared Silly,” back in 2011, these VHS tapes were a hot commodity. “When they sold out,” our blogger writes, “people would hop in their minivans and drive 45 minutes into another city in hopes that maybe one of their McDonald's has one.” Considering we saw similar behavior this year for McDonald’s limited edition Pokemon cards, I have no reason to doubt this account.1
While the episodes were released before the internet was truly ubiquitous, the series is hardly lost to time—in fact, you can find all of the episodes on YouTube. I re-watched “Scared Silly” the other night, and it is, truly, a low-grade fever dream. Based on the long-running McDonaldland series of commercials that started in the ‘70s, “Scared Silly” assumes that you already know a lot about the McDonaldland canon. Not that it really matters—all of the characters can be boiled down to pretty much a single trait, except for Ronald, who gets two (inventor and wizard).2
Is it worth watching this 40-minute adventure in the world of Ronald McDonald? Not really—I thought I would feel a tinge of nostalgia for it, but it’s honestly just boring. Far more interesting is trying to follow trails of breadcrumbs about the series on the internet.
For example, take the $3.49 price point I mentioned earlier. I originally found it on Wikipedia, which states that the VHS tapes "were sold individually for $3.49 and could be bought with a small vanilla ice cream cone or Diet Coke.” (Thanks to Wikipedia's detailed edit history, we know that this language was added on November 16, 2009—this will be important later.)
While Wikipedia does not cite a source, I believe that this particular detail comes from a contemporary fansite, animeexpressway.com, which included a page for "Scared Silly" as part of its extensive guide to Rugrats. While Wikipedia's language suggests that you could only purchase the VHS tape with those two menu items, what animeexpressway actually wrote was: “as [the VHS is] available ‘with any purchase,' get it with a small vanilla cone or small Diet Coke; a purchase of a Big Mac or Quarter Pounder is not necessary." It's a small thing, but as we’ll see, this slight misreading will have ramifications.
In my research, I found a Facebook page for The Wacky Adventures of Ronald McDonald that I think could actually be run by the remnants of Klasky-Csupo, or pretty committed cosplayers. Originally created in 2011, the page continually posted updates up until 2017. Some updates are also backdated to the late '90s and early '00s, marking the original release dates for the videos and even sharing behind-the-scenes character sketches. I did a reverse image search on this sketch of Ron’s dog Sundae which returned zero results, and while that's hardly conclusive, it is a piece of evidence that whoever runs this page has some access to archival material.3
On the other hand, this status, posted in 2012 but backdated to 1998, features the same detail about the vanilla ice cream and Diet Coke that is featured in the Wikipedia article:
Given the timeline, it seems clear that this language was lifted directly from the Wikipedia entry. It's possible that this page was set up by someone from Klasky-Csupo, or an old member of the team going down memory lane, and they looked to Wikipedia for help remembering some of the finer details. But let’s be real: an actual official status from the Wacky Adventures page would probably mention Happy Meals.
Regardless, it’s fun to track this small aside about ice cream and Coke from a fansite in the late ‘90s (which is magically still up and running) to Wikipedia, then to a most-likely-fan-run Facebook page, and even make its way into articles about the series, like this post about “Scared Silly” from the horror blog Bloody Disgusting:
It was even going to make its way into this post—the only reason I looked into Wikipedia’s description in the first place is that, while Wikipedia describes all of the episodes being priced at $3.49, I noticed that an old print ad for a later episode posted to Facebook lists the price as $3.99, suggesting that there was actually a small price hike after the first episode was released. To all of my high school teachers who told me I couldn't cite Wikipedia in my essays: may you have the last laugh.
While you can no longer walk into McDonald’s and buy an episode of The Wacky Adventures of Ronald McDonald for just $3.49 with the purchase of a vanilla cone or Diet Coke, you can purchase a bootleg copy of the series on Blu-Ray from a site called Monsterland Media for $22.99. Apparently, according to the site's definitely true legal FAQ, I violated code 341.322.12 of the Internet Privacy Act of 1995 by visiting the site despite "working for any television for movie production studio," and I cannot threaten their ISP or prosecute anyone related to the site. Good to know!
It seems like the hype was big enough to warrant a second production order—based on the production credits and the episode release dates, it looks like the episodes were produced in two batches of three episodes each.
And I guess clown. So three character traits.
There’s also the chance these sketches were shown as bonus content on another Wacky Adventures VHS—I don't quite have the stamina to find out.