How Urban Legend Destroyed the Ball Pit
Discover how this childhood mainstay transformed from a universally-loved innovation in play to a scapegoat blamed for every flavor of misfortune that could befall a kid
On a spring day in 2019, somewhere in New Jersey, a preteen named Drew started filming himself sitting at a booth inside of a McDonald’s. “Wassup guys! Welcome back to another awesome video,” he excalims to an unseen, unknown audience before helping himself to a chicken nugget adorned with honey mustard. As the Hamburglar peers over his shoulder, Drew announces that he is on a mission: to break all the rules of the McDonald’s Playplace. “It’s gonna be super funny,” he assures us, just before taking a healthy slurp from an oversized paper cup.
He enters the fast food restaurant’s play area with the sort of confidence that immediately draws in younger, more impressionable peers. In a moment that’s simultaneously adorable and mildly disturbing, a young bystander encourages viewers to “like and subscribe”. Drew then proceeds to read over the rules and regulations posted on the wall. Initially, it seems that he should be able to break most of them with ease. Drew is significantly taller than the posted 4ft height limit. He fails to take off his shoes as he vows to dash around a bit and climb atop one of the modular multicolored tube slides. However, when he begins crawling through the primary play structure, he realizes that there’s one rule listed that he simply cannot break.
“They [the ruleboard] also said something like ‘don’t jump in the ball pit’…which does not make any sense,” Drew remarks. “There is no ball pit here”.
What Drew likely didn’t realize was that his local McDonald’s Playplace is far from the only one to mysteriously lack a ball pit. In fact, the once-beloved childhood staple has seemingly become the victim of a silent but thorough eradication sometime within the last decade. Even the world’s largest McDonald’s – which boasts a brick pizza oven, an impressive arcade, and a 22 ft tall labyrinth of ropes, tubes, and slides – does not have a ball pit.
For those who grew up in the 80s, 90s, and 00s, this revelation may come as a shock. Many individuals fondly remember hours spent wading through waist-deep seas of spheres when their parents treated them to an outing at the fast-food behemoth. From Google HQ to Tumblr’s ill-fated Dash Con, modern entities of all sorts have attempted to evoke millenial nostalgia via ball pits. As recently as 2010, McDonald’s itself used ball pits in their advertising, an example of which I’ve attached below:
Yet it’s not just McDonald’s participating in this great ball purge. Other fast-food restaurants inspired by the success of the McDonald’s PlayPlace, like Burger King and Chik-Fil-A, have also phased out the ball pit. The same goes for popular family entertainment centers, which frequently feature indoor playgrounds as main attractions. “We keep embracing innovation decade after decade. We don’t have ball pits anymore. But we have the greatest video games and arcade games and interactive dance parties.” Chuck E. Cheese CEO David McKillips recently stated.
Some of this should be expected. Safety precautions in the early, uncertain days of the COVID-19 pandemic transformed even the most innocent activities into potential biohazards. But as restrictions have eased up, the ball pits that once brightened the days of so many seemingly haven’t made a comeback. So, what gives?
The truth of the matter is that the iconic ball pit has been the target of urban legend and speculation for well over two decades. Ranging from the absolutely outlandish (venomous snakes, syringes filled with heroin) to the entirely feasible (half-eaten chicken nuggets), the humble ball pit has corroded into a cesspool of every parent’s greatest fears.
But it wasn’t always this way. How did the ball pit garner international popularity to begin with? Furthermore, what caused them to almost disappear entirely over just a few year’s time?
The playground (as we know it, anyway) is actually a relatively recent invention. For centuries, adaptable children developed cultures all their own within the surroundings available to them. For kids living in urban areas worldwide, the de facto place to congregate was in the streets and alleys of their towns and villages. But the end of the 19th century brought with it the introduction of the automobile, which all but overtook the spaces kids once held sacred. It quickly became evident just how much carnage twisted metal could wreak on the human body when propelled forward with enough force. Parents, who up until this point mostly had a laissez-faire approach to their children’s whereabouts, began advocating cites for kid-friendly spaces to convene outside of increasingly dangerous streets.
So, slides and swings began popping up just about everywhere. Following the end of World War II, community playgrounds became commonplace worldwide. They weren’t always the safest environments by modern standards – in the early days, the line separating a designated play space from a junkyard was a thin one. I mean this in the most literal sense – “junk playgrounds” (also known more affectionately as “adventure playgrounds”) became en vogue in Europe during the 1940s, where kids could use scrap wood, popped tires, and leftover paint to play however they saw fit. In the UK, the idea of repurposing bomb-ravaged ruins and rubble into junk playgrounds gained traction for some time, as unbelievable as that sounds. And these crumbling foundations are precisely where the story of the ball pit begins.
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Eric McMillan, the man who invented the ball pit, claims that his first memories were of the rubble-strewn industrial landscape he was born into. Described as "wild and unwanted” as well as “feral”, the boy found peace in his formative years crawling among the debris and refuse on the outskirts of post-blitzkrieg Manchester. It wasn’t by any metric what a present-day parent would consider safe, but McMillan was able to enjoy absolute freedom when inventing new ways to play among the war ruins.
As a working-class adult, McMillan intended to pursue a career as a day laborer – until he realized that the trade school he was attending had an art school attached. By the 1970s, he was a successful young designer living in North America.
During this decade, a serious demand arose for controlled play spaces capable of simultaneously entertaining children and quelling parental fears. As much as children of the 70s and 80s are portrayed as “latchkey kids”, a myriad of new anxieties ranging from abductions to addictions plagued the parents of this era. More precautionary than their predecessors, rusted-over metal monkey bars and jungle gyms just weren’t cutting it for a rapidly growing number of concerned parents. So, when McMillan started experimenting with ‘soft’ materials like vinyl, foam, and plastic that allowed for safer versions of the permissive play he enjoyed as a child, people took notice. After making waves for his work on Ontario Place’s Children’s Village (sometimes credited as the “greatest playground in Canadian history”), Sea World San Diego hired McMillan to design something comparable.
The story goes that McMillan looked at jar of pickled onions one particular day and started to wonder what it would be like to roll around among all those pearly orbs. In turn, he was inspired to order a massive amount of lightweight plastic balls and create the world’s first “ball crawl” for Sea World patrons to wade through. The interactive exhibit was an immediate success, freeing kids to jump, dive, swim, roll, and throw without worrying their guardians.
This innovation came just in time to accommodate businesses eager to profit off of the newfound demand for child-friendly recreation. McDonald’s found that after installing its first outdoor playground in 1972, business at the adjoining restaurant rose by 63%. Ball pits proved to be the perfect solution to lure in kids when it finally became apparent that their original play fixtures were resulting in too many injuries. Building and maintaining them was cheap enough that competing fast-food ventures followed suit, using ball pits to increase profits at very little risk. In 1977, just a few years after the McDonald’s PlayPlace debuted, the first Chuck E. Cheese franchises launched in California. They spread like wildfire across North America during the 80s in 90s in large part due to their eye-catching, attention-grabbing ball pits.
When Langhorne, PA’s Sesame Place theme park initially opened in 1980, McMillan was hired to create a colossal 80,000-ball attraction. In just a decade’s time, the ball pit went from an onion-inspired idea floating around in an artist’s head to a must-have for any commercial enterprise marketing to kids.
Normally, this is where the story would end. Whimsical and imaginative, just about any kid (or young-at-heart adult) could find dozens of ways to keep themselves entertained swimming in a sea of spheres. Thanks to the miniscule risk of injury they presented, parents with fat wallets were more than happy to shell out a few dollars to ball pit owners to keep their offspring occupied. On paper, it was a win-win-win scenario for everyone involved.
That is, until the internet started to meddle.
Just outside of Johannesberg, a South African woman by the name of Lauren Archer took her son Kevin to the Midrand McDonald’s to celebrate his third birthday. After romping around in the ball pit with his peers, Kevin crawled back to his mother whining. At bath time, Lauren discovered a welt on Kevin’s behind and the splintered end of a hypodermic needle embedded under his skin. Some reports claim that the child then began undergoing violent seizures – others simply claim that his eyes rolled back into his head. But in the end, an autopsy report always determines that little Kevin Archer died of a heroin overdose.
Sad and disturbing as this anecdote is, it’s not actually true. Reportedly, Midrand’s McDonald’s didn’t even have a ball pit. No credible evidence was ever discovered backing up the story, in South Africa or otherwise. Rather, this tall tale was one of the internet’s first widespread email hoaxes. Nevertheless, the rumor lingered for years and terrified thousands.
Eventually, the location of Kevin’s bogus story morphed from Midrand, South Africa to Midrand, Texas, perhaps to stoke the paranoia of US citizens already haunted by half-true horror stories circulated at the height of the country’s War on Drugs. Even though there is no such place as Midrand, Texas, the story caused so much distress that the similarly-named town of Midland, TX had to run a piece denying the veracity of the email. The Houston Chronicle, which in some versions of the email is listed as the source of Kevin’s obituary, was also forced to pen an article denouncing the viral rumor.
One unsubstantiated rumor is hardly powerful enough to provoke widespread permanent action. But around the same time the heroin needle email started making the rounds, so too did a series of claims revolving around hapless children stumbling upon venomous snakes coiled just beneath multicolored seas of plastic.
Like the needle rumor, there’s never been substantial evidence indicating that any such accident ever occurred. Logistically, the scenario doesn’t even make a ton of sense. Aside from being packed with rowdy human children, the bottom of a ball pit doesn’t get the sunlight necessary to regulate the temperature of a cold-blooded reptile’s body. And yet, the trope persisted for years after the first fabricated emails made their way into inboxes, slithering its way into all sorts of media. For instance, the film Jackass 2 features a gag starring Johnny Knoxville & co. attempting to wrangle two green anacondas out of a ball pit – a solid eight years after corporations like Burger King attempted to quell emerging hearsay concerning deadly serpents lurking in their establishments.
From a logical standpoint, stumbling upon a set of venomous fangs or a hypodermic needle in a space designed for children shouldn’t be a real concern. They’re simply not fears grounded in reality. Yet something about those early internet myths continues to fester in the darkest corners of Western minds. Perhaps it’s possible to draw the anxiety we feel toward the ball pit back to age-old fears of the unknown. There is no real way to know exactly what lurks beneath that inviting, unassuming surface, after all. Maybe it just has to do with every good parent’s natural fear that disaster is bound to strike the moment their child is left unattended.
Whatever the cause, our collective cultural anxiety surrounding the ball pit has made it the target of unparallelled scrutiny over the last two decades. And in that time, parents have managed to conjure an even greater bogeyman than the poisons and creeping things of email’s infancy. In their stead, colonies of microscopic viruses and bacteria with difficult to pronouce names have begun to fuel the nightmares of cautious mothers and fathers.
In fairness, these fears aren’t entirely unwarranted. Ball pits certainly have the potential to be unsanitary because they’re primarily designed to entertain children. And as lovable as they may be at times, kids drool and spit and pick their noses with reckless abandon. Their boundless curiosity inspires them to constantly touch things that they shouldn’t be touching. They may or may not have full control of their bowels. It is safe to assume that just about anything that children interact with en masse is at least a little bit gross. Every now and then, an unsanitary story beyond the pale will emerge, like this case involving a two-year-old boy ingesting a used condom found at a McDonald’s PlayPlace. However, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a legitimate horror story that pegs a ball pit as the scene of a crime.
The closest thing to hard evidence backing up the danger of the ball pit comes from a handful of scary-sounding news articles, such as this Fox News headline titled “Ball pits are crawling with disease-causing germs that can make your kids sick, study suggests”. As startling as this statement initially sounds, the further one dives, the tamer the tale becomes. A quick look at the summary of the supposedly-damning study cited revealed that just six ball pits were tested, and all of them were located at physical therapy clinics likely not subject to the same hygienic practices carried out by commercial ball pits. What’s more, while it sounds scary to report that Staphylococcus hominis was among the human-associated bacteria found colonizing in tested ball pits, a quick search reveals that S. Hominis is an extremely common, largely harmless strain of bacteria that’s primarily known for creating the compounds that contribute to human body odor. While that is slightly disgusting, its presence hardly carries the weight that might come from the presence of S. Aureus, the strain of staph that sometimes results in life-threatening infections and complications.
But even if a ball pit were to test positive for S. Aureus, it’s worth noting an estimated 20-30% of the population carry S. Aureus on their skin and nostrils. Yet, we hardly avoid shaking hands, giving hugs, or handling frequently-touched surfaces for fear of encountering staph. Aside from the Fox News article attached, the Washington Post and Yahoo News have also cited this study as evidence to nix the ball pit for good.
Other pieces, such as this 2011 article from the New York Times, cite vague findings from Dr. Erin M. Carr-Jordan claiming that 49 out of 50 fast-food playgrounds tested positive for “an array of pathogens”. But Carr-Jordan’s study focuses on indoor playgrounds as a whole, and while she specifically recalls an account of an exceptionally disgusting climbing tube, no mention is ever made about ball pits being particularly unsafe.
Essentially, all that leaves are the accounts of individuals who have worked on ball pit upkeep personally. Of course, someone commenting on a Reddit thread may not be the most reliable narrator. But it seems that on many discussion threads, for every employee that’s had to deal with some sort of nightmare clean-up, there’s another who never encountered anything worse than a lost shoe. But, without any actual reports of children contracting serious illness from ball pits, these anecdotes are the only fragments of information that justify the lingering fears that have plagued the ball pit since the 90s. Regardless of the fact that a child is infinitely more likely to, say, break their leg at a trampoline parkthan pick up a staph infection from a ball pit, the power and paranoia fueling ball pit urban legends are something logic simply cannot compete with.
Any hopes that the ball pit may have had of conquering its grimey reputation died with the arrival of COVID-19. Between the general public’s (understandably) heightened concerns over illness and the lingering perception that ball pits are universally filthy, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to learn that the attractions were shut down in the pandemic’s earliest days. But even as we’ve learned more about transmission and life has largely returned to normal, the ball pit has yet to make a return.
Ironically, it’s likely to suffer the same fate as the questionable early playground equipment it was made to replace – a relic of childhood past.
From an article by Nicholas Hune-Brown detailing McMillan’s life: “In those early years, he would play in the rubble of bombed-out buildings, clambering over the ruins, playing violent games with bricks, building paper airplanes out of the pages of discarded books. There were no restraints, no control”
A counterpoint one could make is that indoor fast-food playgrounds are legally not subject to the same cleanliness regulations as the restaurants they’re attached to. That said, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence from employees that suggests that many restaurants and family entertainment centers would switch out the balls and perform a deep clean as frequently as once a week (see: here, here, and here). If employee anecdotes involving vomit and explosive diarreah are taken seriously when calculating the safety of the ball pit, so too should this information.
S. Hominis can occassionally cause illness or infection in immunocompromised individuals.
In the United States, there are approximately 100,000 trampoline related-injuries per year. I don’t think that anyone could honestly make the argument that trampoline parks are safer than ball pits, yet as ball pits dwindle over safety concerns, trampoline parks are currently one of the fastest growing industries in children’s entertainment.
Reading the "great ball purge" was hilarious. Well done. I think we share a similar style and with any luck you'll check out my page, enjoy it or give feedback. Nonetheless I subscribed and am glad I did!
It's wild that all those ball pit horror stories were just urban legends! I definitely remember diving into Chuck E. Cheese ball pits as a kid and it was pretty fun!