The transition to turbulence in the rotating disk boundary layer is investigated in a closed cylindrical rotor–stator cavity via direct numerical simulation (DNS) and linear stability analysis (LSA). The mean flow in the rotor boundary layer is qualitatively similar to the von Kármán self-similarity solution. The mean velocity profiles, however, slightly depart from theory as the rotor edge is approached. Shear and centrifugal effects lead to a locally more unstable mean flow than the self-similarity solution, which acts as a strong source of perturbations. Fluctuations start rising there, as the Reynolds number is increased, eventually leading to an edge-driven global mode, characterized by spiral arms rotating counter-clockwise with respect to the rotor. At larger Reynolds numbers, fluctuations form a steep front, no longer driven by the edge, and followed downstream by a saturated spiral wave, eventually leading to incipient turbulence. Numerical results show that this front results from the superposition of several elephant front-forming global modes, corresponding to unstable azimuthal wavenumbers
, in the range
. The spatial growth along the radial direction of the energy of these fluctuations is quantitatively similar to that observed experimentally. This superposition of elephant modes could thus provide an explanation for the discrepancy observed in the single disk configuration, between the corresponding spatial growth rates values measured by experiments on the one hand, and predicted by LSA and DNS performed in an azimuthal sector, on the other hand.