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McDonald’s Family Getaway and a Giveaway

This is a sponsored post from BlogHer and McDonald’s.

I am so excited I get to finally share with you the big Chicago trip I got to take last month. I, along with 9 other bloggers, was invited to McDonald’s Family Time Getaway in Chicago. I know what you’re thinking, Ang, WHY? Well, you have to give everyone a chance, and listen with open and receptive ears. And that’s exactly what I did for 3 days. I, along with my new blogging friends, have developed a brand new opinion of the infamous fast food giant.  Not only did I get to spend time with 9 other amazing bloggers, but also their sweet families. We got to spend time having fun together, got to meet with top level executives, spend time in the test kitchen, taste new menu items, and learn more about the Ronald McDonald House Charities.

Day one started with an early morning pickup by our local limousine service in a town car for transportation to the airport. (It’s nice how big business treats us bloggers.) After a quick flight, we traveled to the McDonald’s campus from O’Hare.  Yes, McDonald’s has its own campus, amazing.  Here’s some great shots I took late in the evening with my ISO cranked high. Funny, I thought the McDonald’s campus would be more artificial looking, however, I was amazed at the park-like setting of the grounds and the Frank Lloyd Wright inspired architectural design of the hotel and other buildings on the property.

When we arrived at the Hyatt on the McDonald’s campus, we were greeted by a group of very happy smiling women.  We all got name tags, an itinerary of what we would learn in the next few days, and a t-shirt.  My son was super excited about his t-shirt.

We checked in the room, and relaxed for a few minutes, before all the mamas went to meet up. We chatted for a little while, brought the rest of our families in and did some of those silly break the ice activities.

We then went on the patio for a BBQ dinner.

I missed the wine bar over to the side in my photos.  Hubs and I seemed to be the only ones taking advantage of the red wine. The buffet offerings, to my surprise, were not McDonald’s food. I expected all McDonald’s all the time at this event, and actually was very nervous going into it that there wouldn’t be anything to eat but McDonald’s food; thankfully I was wrong.

The food was great. They had separate tables for all the families, so it was hard to mingle. My hubs constantly pushed me to mingle while I tried to look after our son. I guess he’s my safety net when I don’t want to be social. My son had a blast though, and I didn’t want to miss a minute of the wonderful time he was having. I live vicariously through him, since my childhood was so serious. Here’s Julien enjoying his balloon animal, balloon flower and getting art from the face painter.

Aren’t the hands of this artist beautiful against the young skin of a child?

After we were done eating, the kids got a big surprise; Ronald McDonald.  I remember my first encounter with Ronald McDonald back in ’83. It wasn’t fond. Thankfully, Julien’s first experience with Ronald was 1st class. This Ronald must be the actor they use in the commercials. He was absolutely perfect in every way, down to mannerisms and tone of voice. It was amazing.

Right after this we were each ushered away one by one for an on camera interview. Those 2 glasses of wine I just polished off didn’t seem like such a good idea right about then. One of the questions was what is your favorite menu item. I said the first thing that came to my mind, a Big Mac. But my favorite menu item isn’t offered any more. It’s the old fries and I am still upset about the change in fat for frying that happened sometime in 1990 that changed the old perfect fry into its current state. French fries were prepared in a blend of vegetable oil and beef shortening until 1990. In 1990 McDonald’s switched to 100% vegetable oil to prepare French fries and in 2008 switched to a trans fat free canola oil blend. I remember the perfect taste of those amazing fries. The old McDonald’s French Fries were not just loved by the average Joe; respectable foodies such as James Beard and Julia Child loved these tasty bites too. The secret to the fries of the past is beef tallow, or beef fat mixed with a small portion of cottonseed oil. Memories.

On to the rest of the cookout. Here’s Julien having some bubble fun:

And here he is trying to fly a kit in no wind:

Not too long after this, Julien keep wondering further and further away from the activities. We all escaped the fun for a short walk then slipped back to the room to get a good night’s sleep before the next day.

Day 2 started off with a scavenger hunt for the kiddos. Julien is obviously too little to understand, so we took advantage of the hotel’s paddle boats and set off on the lake. We paddled around for a while and got a good workout while enjoying the peaceful scenery.

For lunch, we went to their flagship restaurant on the campus and were given gift cards and encouraged to try one of their newer menu options, like one of their salads or a McCafé. After lunch, our kids and better halves were quickly escorted away from the restaurant while we awaited the meeting with the McDonald’s top female executives. We meet with Jan Fields, Karen Wells, and Danitra Barnett.

Each executive had a story about their own meager start, and how they rose through the ranks at McDonald’s, very inspiring rags-to-riches stories. Each was very touching, and the women were all truly grateful for their present positions in the company. We were all able to ask each of the women specific questions about McDonald’s plans, their policies, and stances on current issues. At this time I felt truly unprepared for what was taking place. I listened as the other mom’s talked about things I had no idea of, all I could do was think about how to fix the McCafé I had just had (it was way to weak and milky), and how swollen I was going to be the next day from all the sodium I just ate if I didn’t get some water soon.  The other women asked why McDonald’s doesn’t offer a fruit cup, offer wheat bread, how they felt about recent criticism concerning toys in happy meals, and other great questions. All answers given to us were either, we have tried that and it didn’t work or we are working on that.

After our meeting, we were then escorted to Hamburger University for a talk about McDonald’s commitment to children. They explained that they try to convey in their ads the joy of the experience of a Happy Meal for a child. This is one reason they have decided to go back to the Happy Meal box to make the Happy Meal feel more special for the child consumer.  They showed us advertisements from various markets as examples of how they want their company to be portrayed. The most exciting part of this segment for the other moms was a walk down memory lane as they were able to view antique Happy Meal toys from the past. Unfortunately, and I guess fortunately for me as a child I never had a Happy Meal except for one time, at my birthday party with the weird Ronald.

In this section we also learned about all the nutritious Happy Meal options they have tested in different markets here and abroad. They also pointed out that they were the United State’s largest supplier of apples. I thought that was amazing, I had no idea so many people were getting their kids to eat apples, wonderful.

After this we were off to the local Ronald McDonald House. This was the main reason I wanted to come on this trip. The House was designed in such a peaceful way. The yard is planted in native prairie grasses and flowers, it’s so tranquil:

There are two wings of the House that extend like open arms as you walk up to the House.

Here is a photo of the entrance, notice the art hanging. This modern art is a local artist’s interpretation of bee hives:

The bee hives are a symbol of how a community works together,  supports each other and achieves a nearly impossible feat.

The inside of the home was also stunning. It was a mixture of modern and traditional elements that created a nice clean, peaceful environment.

I really loved all the modern light fixtures:

We were able to tour the home and the kitchen. The kitchen was a dream, however I didn’t take pictures because there were families there. We also heard tear jerking stories from the women about the House. It was a very emotional time, we were all sobbing. I am so thankful for my healthy little boy. I know the most difficult thing in the world is having an ill child and the worst, is the loss of a child. After hearing those heart wrenching stories, all I wanted to do was hug and squeeze my little guy.

Not knowing exactly what the Ronald McDonald House was going into this, I found out that they are a charity that provides the families of sick children a quiet and peaceful place to stay while their child is in the hospital. I thought that the charity was only income based but found out it isn’t.  This one of the biggest reasons I wanted to participate in this event, to tell as many people as possible about this wonderful charity and help spread the word that they are not income based. There is a general misconception that was held by me and many others. However, THE RONALD MCDONALD HOUSE IS NOT INCOME BASED. They do ask for a donation of $10 per night, if you have it. They say that many people give much more per night, closer to that of which they would pay in a hotel, so they can stay in a peaceful enforcement with others going through the same stressful experiences.

Day 3 started off early with an early morning tasting of breakfast items at the test kitchen. We started off with an Egg McMuffin. I put my son’s in front of him and he dry heaved, embarrassing to say the least. We also had the McGriddles.  I apprehensively gave it a try, and to my surprise it was actually very tasty.  I am not an Egg McMuffin person, but my hubs, along with another McMuffin loving mama blogger said it was better than any Egg McMuffin she’s ever had. We also taste tested a new menu option, a Fruit & Maple Oatmeal. It was amazing, and we all loved it. I really hope they will be introducing this menu item in every market. If approved, it will be available any time of the day, and will have the low price of $1.99.

Here is a quick video of our taste testing session with the new oatmeal.

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We also got to see the main reason we were invited to this mama blogger event – the re-branding of McDonald’s. This will be beginning with a healthy new option of berry smoothies that are targeted at health conscious women in our age bracket. We were not able to sample the smoothies, but they looked amazing. There will be 2 flavors, strawberry banana and wild berry. I also learned that just to make these new wild berry smoothies, they have to secure growers of the -blackberries. If they just dipped into the -blackberry market, without first arranging growers to grow extra berries, they would take approximately 30 percent of America’s blackberry crop and send the price of blackberries for us through the roof. It was a real eye opener to me what a huge affect McDonald’s has on our economy and how every menu option and decision they make has to be very carefully planned out as to not disrupt our food prices.

During this day, we were also able to listen to one of the head veterinarians about animal welfare. He assured us, something I have known for years, that McDonald’s chicken does not contain any added hormones. I am here to tell you NO CHICKEN HAS ADDED HORMONES in the United States. It has been illegal to give chickens hormones since 1959.  It is also illegal to give hogs growth hormones. The “no hormones” statement on poultry and pork is only for marketing. The veterinarian also told us that they haven’t had to use antibiotics in any of their chicken houses for 1 year. That’s a pretty impressive track record. To set the record straight about big breasted chickens, chickens get bigger and bigger breasts by selective breeding, not hormones.

We also talked with the nutritionist. She showed us many nutritional facts on their menu items and other common lunch items. She talked about making healthy choices when ordering off the menu and about moderation. We all had concerns about the amount of sodium used in their items. Even though they have taken strides to reduce fat and calories, sodium is still through the roof. Their response was, “We’re working on that.”

I was not able to ask the question that has been weighing on my mind since ’95 till after the discussion was over. My question, do you use Holstein beef to keep the price low in your hamburgers? The answer, no. My next question: It is an urban myth that the meat you use for your hamburgers is not beef, it has been rumored to be everything from cardboard to worm meat for years. Even the cabby that drove me from the airport claimed your hamburgers were made from worms. Of course, anyone with any sense knows you are using real beef, are you using dairy cattle in any way to make the ground beef for your hamburger meat?

The response was… dairy cows play an important role in the lean portion of the meat.  She also said that they play an important role in using these animals that would otherwise be discarded. The fat in the hamburgers does come from beef cattle, and the fat in the angus burgers comes from angus beef cattle.

The process of dairy cow slaughter is cleaning out, or culling, the dairy cow herd.   I, personally, choose not to eat or serve my family dairy cattle beef if possible. The reality is dairy cattle make up approximately 8% of the beef production in the U.S annually. They are not just used for fast food hamburger meat, but also other cheap lean cuts of meat. Dairy cow slaughter is good, it prevents waste and it provides cheap, lean meat for many Americans.

A question I wished I could have asked is do you use hormones in the dairy and beef cattle used to make your hamburger meat. However, after I asked my first question about the beef, we were quickly told there was no more time for questions. Hormones are given to most beef and dairy cattle in the United States. The European Union has already outlawed the use of hormones in their beef and dairy cattle, however, we haven’t. The European Union has even banned the import of U.S. beef and dairy products because of our extensive hormone use.

To end the day, the kids spent time in the kitchen with Chef Dan making smoothies. By this time, my little one was exhausted and had passed out in my arms. We went ahead and left a little early so we could get back to the hotel for check out.

Lastly we met up for a fairwell luncheon with a Hawaiian theme. We chatted for a while and did a fairwell interview before getting ready to go back to the airport.

Here are some great insider tips I learned for ordering in our behind the counter tour of the restaurant in the headquarters:

  1. You can add additional espresso shots to your McCafé if you like it stronger. I did this while on our tour and it was as good as that very expensive chain coffeeUPDATE – I just did this locally and my advice is not to bother with this, they will charge way more than your favorite snooty coffee house for the extra shots.
  2. You can request regular bacon on the egg McMuffin and they have to make it fresh
  3. Request no salt on the fries and they will make them fresh
  4. You can also have it made for you, you can request no anything and also request additional anything else.
  5. The $1 sweet tea is also for unsweetened tea, if not contact the area manager through the site (I had to do this in my region).

We learned so much about McDonald’s on our Family Time Happy Time getaway, and while I probably will not go to McDonald’s any more frequently, I will be making plans to volunteer or contribute to my local Ronald McDonald house. Are there any new facts you learned from reading this post? If you have any questions about my trip or McDonald’s, please ask them in the comments section below, and I’ll do my best to answer them.

So, congratulations if you have made it this far, you are now ready to enter the giveaway! McDonald’s is offering one lucky reader a Family Time, Happy Time Prize Pack valued at $100! The prize pack includes: a McDonald’s Smile Tote Bag, a $25 AMC Gift Card, a $20 McDonald’s arch gift card, a McDonald’s fleece blanket, McDonald’s French Fry Playing Cards, a McDonald’s Frisbee, a Monopoly Junior Board Game, Organic Lip Balm, a McDonald’s Vintage Character T-Shirt, a McDonald’s Stainless Steel Tumbler and a surprise set of Happy Meal Toys.

As I shared before, my favorite McDonald’s item is the French fries circa 1989 fried in beef fat, so fatty but so good.  My next favorite has to be the fruit and nut oatmeal I tried that will hopefully be part of McDonald’s future. What’s your favorite menu item, past or present? Answer below and you will be entered in my giveaway.

You can also add an extra entry, for a total of 2 entries per person, by tweeting or blogging about this giveaway. Remember to please leave a comment for each entry so that I can easily see all your entries 🙂

Here are the official rules for the giveaway. Don’t forget to stop by BlogHer.com special offers page so you can enter the other blogger’s giveaways too!

I want to thank BlogHer and McDonald’s for this wonderful trip again. It was an amazing experience. I also want to thanks McDonald’s for the amazing gifts for my child. He received every current promotional Happy Meal Toy, along with many other goodies.

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