They pile up in toy boxes and drawers, on shelves and in car seats, under the sofa and underfoot. But anyone looking for a teeny Beanie Baby or the one-hundred-and-first Dalmatian can tell you how hard it can really be to find one of the seemingly ubiquitous little toys.
There's one in every Happy Meal at McDonald's, in every Kid's Club Meal at Burger King, in countless other children's meals at countless other restaurants. But collectors of all ages will tell you that finding the right one is what really counts.
"Truthfully, I don't have any complete sets at all," says Linda Liverett of Grovetown, who keeps a drawerful of the little plastic figures to pass out to grandchildren. "I would love to have the whole sets, but I never seem to be able to get there when I need to get them. If I worked for McDonald's, I'd probably have every one they've ever put out."
The collecting craze has led to collector's clubs and Internet sites, along with vats and vats of the plastic figurines at flea markets around the country. Regular customers will call restaurants at the beginning of the week to find out what toys are available, said one McDonald's employee in Augusta.
"We're getting calls right now for Beanie Babies -- people want to know right now if we're going to have the Beanie Babies for Christmas," said Tanya Moore, an Atlanta spokeswoman for the restaurant. "All I can tell them is, "No, we're not bringing them out for Christmas. That's not our Christmas promotion."'
Instead, the restaurant will offer toys tied to the re-release of The Little Mermaid, while Burger King will have toys related to Anastasia. While most of the toys come free with the children's meal, Burger King is offering a sort of deluxe edition of some toys, at $2.59 with a meal purchase -- just in time for Christmas.
"Collectors love them," said Kim Miller, a Burger King spokeswoman. "We distribute tens of millions of toys when we are aligned with a promotion like Anastasia. And they're high-quality and have great play value."
As a marketing tool, it appears to be a success -- it's led to a lot of hamburger sales.
"A friend and I got all the Beanie Babies -- nine in all," Augusta resident Carrie Jones said. "We had our fair share of hamburgers trying to get all of them. We had help, though. Everybody else who got some would trade extras."
Generally free with each kid's meal and usually under a dollar per figure at flea markets, the indestructible little characters are a sort of Everyman's collectible.
"I think you find a lot of adults who collect these -- I love them myself," Mrs. Liverett said. "When I was a child, we had all girl things and the boys had all boy things, and none of them was little toys like this.
"And if I'm going to collect something, I would rather have these than porcelain dolls. What can you do with porcelain without breaking it? I'd rather have something children can play with."