Disney Freaked Out About This Recess Episode, Calling It A 'Critique Of Religion'

The late 1990s was a golden age for serialized animation for young audiences. Nickelodeon, The Disney Channel, and Cartoon Network were firing on all cylinders, and '90s kids were able to reap the benefits of an explosive new entertainment landscape. In 1997, Walt Disney Television Animation debuted the show "Recess" on ABC, as part of Disney's "One Saturday Morning" block of programming, the last vestige of Saturday Morning Cartoons. The show was a huge hit, centering on the adventures of fourth graders and what happens on the playground during recess. The show was created by Joe Ansolabehere and "Rugrats" co-creator Paul Germain, and allowed young audiences a vessel for dealing with real-life problems while exploring the complex personalities of each and every kid at school.

Ansolabehere had previously worked on the groundbreaking Nickelodeon show "Hey Arnold!," so it should have been a given that "Recess" was also going to tackle difficult themes in a way that was accessible for children. /Film recently talked with Ansolabehere about the process of bringing "Recess" to life, and he shared a studio note received from Disney that almost destroyed their entire season 1 finale, "Swing on Thru to the Other Side." The episode primarily focuses on Spinelli, who, after witnessing what she believes to be Swinger Girl (the name for a girl who dresses like Amelia Earhart and spends all recess on the swings) making a full circle around the swingset and launching into a different dimension, inadvertently starts a cult centered on the miracle of Swinger Girl.

'You can't criticize religion, we're Disney'

It doesn't take much stretching to recognize that the episode is a criticism of religion, with Spinelli becoming a false prophet who convinces a majority of Third Street School that Swinger Girl is more than just an average kid. "It immediately got rejected," Ansolabehere said. "'You can't criticize religion, we're Disney,'" the studio argued. Disney has never hidden their obvious fears of upsetting the conservative right, which has a direct influence on what type of content is allowed in their projects. As the first season of "Recess" chugged along, a Disney executive named Barry Blumberg had suggested revisiting the Swinger Girl story. Ansolabehere had to remind him the standards and practices department had already rejected the idea because of its religious connotations, but Blumberg responded, "Oh, that's stupid. Let's just do it."

"I was really proud of it," Ansolabehere said. "I was really proud of what it was and what it said about cults, the formation of cults, and how we get ideas and we just can't let them go and how we shift reality to mean something else." The end of the episode reveals that Swinger Girl did not in fact launch into another dimension, but instead hopped off the swingset and went on vacation, which is why no one saw her after the attempt at the loop. Spinelli laments how quickly she got swept up in believing it was something more, and her friends help bring her back down to earth.

Disney tried to stop it before airing

Even after the episode was completed, a bigwig at Disney watched the episode and tried to prevent it from broadcasting. "No. You are never airing that episode. That is a critique of religion," the unidentified person allegedly told the "Recess" team. Blumberg, who believed in the episode, retaliated by bringing up that "by contract, we can't have another re-run at ABC." Even this bigwig wasn't prepared to get in a fight with ABC over a breach of contract, so the episode aired as planned. According to Ansolabehere, Disney was worried about a whole lot of nothing:

"They said, 'Okay, you can air it once, that's it. It never will be aired again' ... [but] they just forgot about it. They just kind of left it in the run-up. I think it didn't air maybe that next season again, but then eventually they just said, 'Ah, whatever,' and put it out, because they didn't get any letters. They expected, 'We're going to get a lot of letters. People are going to be [furious],' but nobody cared."

This response only makes me wonder just how many other wonderful stories that were never able to be made out of corporate fear that something would happen, when in reality, most people probably wouldn't have even noticed or cared. "Swing on Thru to the Other Side" is currently available to stream on Disney+ in all of its 12 minutes of "blasphemous" and uncensored glory, as is the entirety of "Recess."