McDonald's used to serve its fries in Disneyland, but not anymore.
Even if you didn’t know what was ahead of you, you knew what you were walking toward. The smell was unmistakable. Turn the corner from Disneyland’s New Orleans Square, pass the Mark Twain Riverboat, and there it was — four spoked wheels, wooden-slat walls and thick canvas stretched across the top, emblazoned with one iconic phrase: “Westward ho!”
The quick-service cart in Frontierland was technically called Conestoga Fries, named after the covered wagon that inspired the kiosk’s design. But they weren’t just any fries. They were the most popular french fries in America — which is why you might know the cart by its more colloquial name, the McDonald’s fry wagon.
Disneyland has a long history of partnering with brands. After all, if Walt Disney hadn’t inked a television deal with ABC before the park’s opening, the company wouldn’t have had enough money to build the park in the first place.
Some of the attractions inside the park were even sponsored by corporations. Tomorrowland used to house something called the Monsanto Hall of Chemistry. Those naming rights were especially prevalent when it came to food. There was the Welch’s Grape Juice Stand, the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship and Casa de Fritos, a Mexican-themed restaurant where Rancho del Zocalo stands now, which is the very spot where Doritos were invented in the early 1960s.
Over the years, the sponsorships undoubtedly became more expensive in Disney parks, but the naming rights became more subtle. Today, the official name of Red Rose Taverne in Fantasyland is actually “Red Rose Taverne hosted by Minute Maid” even though the brand name is very small and light on the sign, designed to de-emphasize Minute Maid and focus on Disney’s restaurant name. The same with the Dole Whip stand outside the Enchanted Tiki Room — it’s officially “Tiki Juice Bar presented by DOLE PACKAGED FOODS,” though I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone say anything close to that. So while McDonald’s sponsored Conestoga Fries, it was never officially called the “McDonald’s Fry Wagon” (with the exception, of course, of its “official” name in the heart of anyone who ever ordered from it).
I think about the old McDonald’s French fry wagon in Disneyland more than I should. A true icon pic.twitter.com/q38hJEqDBB
Call it Westward Ho! Call it the McDonald’s Fry Wagon. Call it Conestoga Fries. It doesn’t matter how you name it, because one thing is universally agreed upon: What got passed through that window was perfectly crisp and delicately salty, the most delicious iteration of a french fry you could ever hope to enjoy.
The fry wagon opened in 1998, as part of a deal between Disney and the fast food chain that included licensing of Disney characters for Happy Meal toys and in-restaurant promotions. As part of the deal, McDonald’s became the official presenting sponsor of an entire land in Animal Kingdom, which became “Dinoland U.S.A. presented by McDonald’s.”
The “Westward ho!” painted on the wagon’s roof was a nod to the old Conestoga Wagons ride that used to occupy the spot in Frontierland that’s now Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. That ride, which opened just a few months after Disneyland’s opening, would bring you around a dirt track in a horse-drawn wagon, meant to evoke the feeling of settlers in the Old West. One wagon was emblazoned with the same phrase, while the other said “Oregon or bust.” It closed just four years later to make way for the Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland, which eventually gave way to the “wildest ride in the wilderness” that’s there now. The tiny western town that you ride past at the end of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is a holdover from Conestoga Wagons.
“Potato Food,” the fry wagon’s sign read. “Eat hearty, round ‘em up! There’s gold in them thar fries.”
Another sign on the wagon read: “Fries are always good! Treats manly enough for his hunger and delicate enough for her taste.” In a nod to the “billions and billions served” on the McDonald’s restaurant signs, there are tally marks totaling 49 “served” on the fry wagon sign.
"Westward Ho, the Wagons!" was a 1956 Disney movie starring Fess Parker that tied into the Conestoga Wagons attraction at Disneyland.
In addition to the fry wagon, McDonald’s fries also appeared at Harbour Galley in Critter Country before it served the bread bowls it has today, and Disney California Adventure eventually opened a Burger Invasion restaurant serving Big Macs and other McDonald’s foods in the spot where Paradise Garden Grill is now.
All the food from the golden arches left the park by 2008, a year after the licensing agreement expired.
Everyone I’ve ever heard discuss the fry wagon does so with the reverence normally bestowed on a sacred, long-lost relationship — and it comes up in conversation an unusually high amount in Disneyland talk. At least in my observation, there is no single food more sorely missed in Disneyland than those regular fast food fries served in a particularly magical environment.
“My favorite thing in Disneyland is the McDonald's french fry wagon,” @st_laurens tweeted in 2015, a full seven years after the wagon closed.
“Bombest, and they were always fresh, too!” @pwiscila tweeted in 2020.
“I think about the old McDonald’s French fry wagon in Disneyland more than I should,” @leighannk tweeted in 2019. “A true icon.”
I would willingly lose all of Frontierland just to get the McDonald’s fry wagon back pic.twitter.com/zsBKzyAvm7
I didn’t make my first trip to Disneyland until 2011 — Aug. 14, 2011, thanks to the wonder of smartphone photos with time and date stamps — so I never got the pleasure of experiencing Conestoga Fries. Honestly, I don’t even feel like I had to try it to fully understand why it holds such an esteemed place among Disneyland foods of yesteryear. I’ve experienced the euphoric joy of perfectly hot, perfectly salted, fresh-from-the-fryer McDonald’s french fries.
The wagon was in such high demand at the park, with lines around the clock, that its fries were always piping hot. On a hot day, when you were hungry and craving comfort food (or just a cheap snack), those fries must have hit on an entirely different level.
“I would willingly lose all of Frontierland just to get the McDonald’s fry wagon back,” @schmoofy tweeted in 2021.
There’s a certain kind of Disneyland fan who still keeps the fry wagon alive. You’re allowed to bring outside food into the parks, and I’ve seen people inside with bags from McDonald’s many times. Those fries, though? Probably not nearly as good. They weren’t made with pixie dust.
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Julie Tremaine is a contributing editor for SFGATE covering Disneyland.