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Joe Mortellaro collects Happy Meal toys, he's lovin' it

When thinking of McDonald's Happy Meals, what comes to mind is the surprise toy included in each box. Joe Mortellaro, from Youngstown, Ohio, has been collecting Happy Meal toys since the 1980s. What began as a collection on display in his basement, has evolved into a museum located in Mount Vernon, Ohio. While it is currently not open to the public, Mortellaro says it is something for his community to still enjoy. 

Mortellaro began working at McDonald’s in 1965 under his boss, Alfred Morfee. He worked there for 18 years before becoming an operator in 1982.  

“My wife, my son and I took a ride down to Perry County, Ohio, and I guess the rest is history,” said Mortellaro. “We opened up in New Lexington in 1982. We then moved up to Mount Vernon in 1985, and I acquired the Newark, Ohio, market in 1988. Then I sold the New Lexington restaurant.” 

In his early years as an operator, Mortellaro would ask the restaurant to save and send him the extra toy displays, which led to a collection of over 3,000 toys stored in his basement. 

“I got energetic one day and I said, ‘I'm going to take these out of the boxes and put them on shelves,’” said Mortellaro. “I had 40 shelves of Happy Meal toys.”

In the past, Mortellaro talked about how Happy Meals used to not include toys, but instead games on the boxes such as crossword puzzles and tic-tac-toe. However, in 1980 McDonald’s started to include a toy with each Happy Meal. Mortellaro enjoys telling people about some of the additions to his collection, some of which were the first Happy Meal toys released.  

“Out of over 3,000 toys, the one I tell people (about) is the boats,” he said. “McDonald's came up with these plastic boats.”

Mortellaro talked about how decals were included in the box so kids could customize their boats. 

mcdonalds man photo 6.HEIC

At first, his collection remained in the basement for friends and family to see. However, he was encouraged to display the toys outside of his home, which spurred the idea of a museum.  

“We decided to tear down a wall and have a contractor fix it up, put shelves in there and we moved all the toys from my basement over here to Mount Vernon,” said Mortellaro. “That’s how the museum got started.” 

Not only does Moretllaro collect toys, but he also has done service for the Ronald McDonald House. He began a golf tournament 38 years ago and it is still an event today. 

“The tournament for the first couple years was held in Mount Vernon,” said Mortellaro. “I'm the kind of person who says, ‘Okay, what can we do better? After everything I do, what could we have done better?’... We would go throughout different golf courses in Columbus, and today, we're in three of the major golf courses in Columbus.”

Mortellaro noted that this year’s tournament raised close to $400,000 for the Ronald McDonald House. 

Mortellaro also discussed the involvement of his family in his work. His son, Brian Mortellaro, decided to work for the family after he graduated from John Carroll University. 

“He learned the ropes, he learned cleaning toilets and scrubbing floors and doing all the stuff that you needed to do before you could get into that ownership mode,” said Mortellaro. “In 1997 he became an operator, and he already runs our 15 restaurants right now.” 

In addition to his son, Mortellaro spoke of his wife, Krystina Mortellaro, and her hard work, as she encouraged him to have displays in the museum and was a lot of help during the construction process.  

“It’s really a work of my wife’s passion because the toys in my basement were all sitting on shelves,” said Mortellaro. “I mean, for people who came down to the basement they could see them, but to have a museum my wife said, ‘You have got to have a display.’”

Mortellaro also discussed some of the struggles there were when trying to complete the Happy Meal Toy sets. He and his wife would use eBay as an important source to find the missing toys. 

mcdonalds man photo 4.HEIC

“If you know the year or the name of the toy it’s amazing that you can find that toy,” said Mortellaro. “(eBay) will complete probably 90% of all the sets. They’re all complete sets.” 

The community of Mount Vernon has had a positive reaction to Mortellaro and his family's work with the museum. Mortellaro and his wife were honored when they were awarded the 2022 Lifetime Achievement Award by the Knox County Chamber of Commerce. 

“My wife and I were awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award and there were over 600 people at the event,“ Mortellaro said. "My son and my daughter-in-law were able to gather these pictures and videos of Krys and I and they presented us with the award.” 

Happy Meal toys have brought joy to children and adults for decades. Mortellaro said he hopes that people can take away enjoyment from his museum and that it can provide a chance for them to reflect on their childhoods.


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