Safety, courtesy, show, and efficiency. Any Disney Cast Member can recite these Four Keys to exceptional guest service... And while the first three are deeply tied to Disney's identity, the last – efficiency – is certainly not least. An estimated 60,000 people per day visit Magic Kingdom, and at some point, you're likely to end up at the back of a line behind many of them. That’s when a very important number – capacity – matters.
A ride’s theoretical hourly capacity is a simple measure (often supplied by a ride's manufacturer) of how many guests can experience a ride every hour “in theory,” meaning that it would require a friction-free machine with every logistical and operational variable working at its peak. That’s why a smaller operational hourly capacity accounts for the sheer realities of operating attractions (like vehicles that are dispatched with an empty seat or two, loading taking five seconds longer than expected, etc.).
Eight of the top 10 most-attended theme parks on Earth are Disney's, so it should be no surprise that everyone – from executives to Imagineers – wants each guest to get the most out of their time. In their decades-long search to find high-capacity “people-eating” ride systems, Disney has stumbled on some unbelievable attractions capable of tremendous daily throughput… Which attractions come out on top? Let’s find out…
10. Space Mountain
Location: Magic Kingdom
Theoretical: 2000 pph
Operational: 1800 pph
After the opening of Disneyland’s Matterhorn Bobsleds, Walt Disney began to appreciate that thrill rides (formerly banned) might indeed have a place in his park, albeit only if they were adequately themed. In fact, Walt and his designers envisioned a roller coaster through the dark in Tomorrowland called “Space Port” back in the 1960s. However, Magic Kingdom was the first to receive the final product in 1975. We set course for the cosmos in a full, in-depth feature on the history of the interstellar adventure – Modern Marvels: Space Mountain – perfect for Imagineering fans.
Magic Kingdom’s Space Mountain is also unique in that it’s based on the formula Matterhorn started: two side-by-side ride tracks, roughly mirror images of one another. With the two roller coasters inside operating independently, Space Mountain has a 2000 person per hour capacity.
Space Mountain did eventually make its way to Disneyland, but in a completely original, single-tracked layout form (which has since been duplicated in Tokyo and Hong Kong), capable of an even-higher 2200 person per hour capacity.
9. Twilight Zone Tower of Terror
Location: Disney’s Hollywood Studios
Theoretical: 2000 pph
Operational: 1800 pph
Though it may be hard to imagine nearly 2000 people plunging through the haunted halls of the Hollywood Tower Hotel each hour, the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror has an exceptional hourly capacity. Guests are pulsed fairly continuously through its two ornate pre-shows and directed into the hotel’s boiler room. And that’s where the real magic happens.
The Tower of Terror features four service elevator loading bays, with four “show shafts” (contained in the ornate showbuilding behind the signature tower itself), each containing an endless hallway scene. The four "show shafts" are funneled down into two "drop shafts" in the front of the building by way of the (doubled) Fifth Dimension scene. Put another way, a tremendous amount of engineering went into the ride’s design, and a spectacular amount of choreography makes its operation appear effortless.
When it came time to design the Lost Legend: Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney California Adventure, designers went back to the drawing board to create a new ride system that was even more efficient (likely closer to 2400 pph) by way of six loading bays, and three shafts. And though fans were disappointed that that version of the ride (since duplicated in Paris and Tokyo) omits the Fifth Dimension scene, the re-engineered ride system in California ensures that if a single shaft is down for maintenance, the ride’s capacity is only cut by 1/3 compared to the minimum loss of ½ of the ride in Florida.
8. Soarin’ Around the World
Theoretical: 2088 pph
Operational: 1879 pph
The Lost Legend: Soarin’ Over California opened alongside Disney California Adventure in 2001 – one of the latest examples of Disney Imagineers creating an entirely new ride system from scratch. The unique system (often imitated since, but never duplicated) loads an astounding 87 people at a time into nine hang-glider rows, which are then hoisted vertically into a tilted OMNIMAX screen.
The single standout hit of Disney California Adventure’s early days, Soarin’ Over California was quickly duplicated across the country at Epcot, replacing the Lost Legend: Kitchen Kabaret as the headliner of the Land pavilion. But Epcot has half as many rides as California Adventure, and Soarin’ quickly became the ride to see at the park, yielding multi-hour queues every day. In fact, Soarin' would probably rank among the lowest-capacity E-Tickets at Walt Disney World...
Except that in 2016 (coinciding with the ride’s transformation from “Over California” to “Around the World”), Epcot’s ride opened “Concourse C,” a third ride theater for the attraction. The result is one of the largest showbuildings Disney’s ever created, and a fairly impressive capacity that can at least keep up with the ride’s astounding demand.
7. Under the Sea – Journey of the Little Mermaid
Location: Disney California Adventure and Magic Kingdom
Theoretical: 2100 pph
Operational: 1900 pph
Way back in 1967, an ambitious, sleek, Space Age-inspired New Tomorrowland opened at Disneyland Park. One of its highlights was the Lost Legend: Adventure Thru Inner Space. Perhaps an ancestor to EPCOT Center’s elaborate, educational dark rides, this journey down to the size of an atom was at once Disney’s bravest dark ride ever if only because of its ride system: the Omnimover.
Designed and patented by WED Enterprises (what we now call Imagineering), the Omnimover system is made of a chain of clamshell-shaped vehicles that move continuously, with guests loading from a moving sidewalk. What’s so brilliant, though, is how each individual cab can pivot and rotate on its own controlled axis, giving Imagineers the real-life power of a camera by controlling exactly where guests look. That's why the Omnimover made it into our Seven Modern Wonders of the Theme Park World.
Describing Omnimover cabs as “clamshell-shaped” is especially appropriate here, given that the ride system made a jump to modern times with the 2011 opening of a dark ride based on The Little Mermaid at Disney California Adventure, followed by a duplicate at Magic Kingdom. The continuously-loading, constantly-moving chain provides for a queue that never seems to slow down, and that’s why this won’t be the last time the Omnimover appears on this list.
Other rides with this capacity: Journey into Imagination, The Seas with Nemo and Friends (both Omnimovers)
6. Toy Story Midway Mania
Location: Disney's Hollywood Studios
Toy Story Mania is one of the most popular attractions at each park it calls home: Disney’s Hollywood Studios (as a giant board game in Toy Story Land), Disney California Adventure (as a seaside Victorian ballroom on Pixar Pier), and Tokyo DisneySea (as a Coney Island-inspired East Coast pleasure park in the American Waterfront port).
But only Florida’s ride has the impressive capacity on display here. That’s because, in 2016 – while Soarin’ was undergoing its own expansion – Disney also expanded Florida’s Toy Story Mania from two tracks to three, essentially boosting its capacity to 150%.
Why? Probably for two reasons: first, Disney’s Hollywood Studios is infamously short on rides just like Epcot; second, executives knew that the approach of 2018’s Toy Story Land and 2019’s Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge would propel Hollywood Studios into superstardom, and recognized that its still-miniscule ride count (it will have 8 total rides, while Disneyland’s Star Wars E-Ticket will be two of 36) will simply have a hard time keeping up with the new demand.
Other attractions with this capacity: Indiana Jones Adventure, DINOSAUR, Spaceship Earth
5. It’s a Small World
Location: Magic Kingdom
Theoretical: 3000 pph
Operational: 2700 pph
During the two-year run of “it’s a small world” at the 1964 – 65 New York World’s Fair, the star of the Pepsi pavilion sold over a million ride tickets. (Children’s tickets cost 60¢, while adults’ cost 95¢, with all proceeds donated to UNICEF.) Despite its popularity, the ride famously featured a queue miles shorter than any other World’s Fair attraction. The reason? The ride system.
“It’s a small world’s” simple ride system was nonetheless revolutionary. Guests sat in 16-person boats set adrift in a canal. Embedded in the waterway were simple water jets, positioned as to keep the boats cruising at a steady 1½ miles per hour, loading and dispatching boats with rhythmic efficiency.
That same high-capacity ride system is still in use today at Disneyland (with only minor adjustments, including deepening the trough in 2007 to accommodate the growing average weight of Disneyland guests). In Magic Kingdom, more efficient 24 person boats are instead track-guided through a flooded showbuilding, with the almost unprecedented capacity approaching 3000 people per hour.
4. Pirates of the Caribbean
Theoretical: 3200 pph
Operational: 2880 pph
Believe it or not, WED Enterprise’s experiment with “it’s a small world” in 1964 is directly responsible for Walt’s magnum opus, Pirates of the Caribbean. Though Walt had long imagined a pirate attraction in a New Orleans-themed area, he pictured it as a walkthrough wax museum, touring guests past ornate sets and scenes in the land’s basement. Such a basement was even dug during the land’s creation.
But upon seeing how many people “it’s a small world” could usher through every hour, the plans shifted. Though Walt never lived to see Pirates open to the public, he was instrumental in its design, including adopting the high-capacity boat ride system that the attraction today is known for. Though Disneyland’s super-sized version of the ride can handle 3400 people per hour, Magic Kingdom’s smaller version can still process 3200 – an incredible number – with ease... part of our argument of why Disney Parks should get rid of FastPass.
3. Haunted Mansion
Location: Disneyland, Magic Kingdom, Tokyo Disneyland
Theoretical: 3200 pph
Operational: 2880 pph
There was a time when the Haunted Mansion was envisioned as a walk-through tour, too, with guests guided from room to room to witness strange sights and sounds by way of simple theatrical special effects and tricks. The success of “small world,” then Pirates encouraged Disney designers to think bigger. The use of the Omnimover on that Lost Legend: Adventure Thru Inner Space (opened in 1967) presented the perfect opportunity.
The Haunted Mansion’s “Doom Buggies” have since become the most iconic and instantly recognizable application of the Omnimover, but the entire ride is a master class in efficiency. Expertly designed to handle crowds, the attraction’s queue, foyer, Stretching Room, portrait gallery, and loading area are all precisely engineered to funnel crowds spectacularly (even if the smashing effect on the other side of the Stretching Room is an annoyance for return visitors).
Think about it – the Mansion’s various pre-show chambers batch guests into groups, pulsing them into the manor’s interior where they board the continuously loading chain of vehicles, slowing only when needed to aid guests in loading and unloading. Haunted Mansion may be one of the most famous attractions at Disney Parks, and luckily its ride system is efficient enough to swallow those crowds with ease.
2. Carousel of Progress
Location: Magic Kingdom
Theoretical: 3600 pph
Despite its capacity, “small world” wasn’t the most efficient ride system to debut at the World’s Fair… In fact, GE’s Progressland pavilion featured a true wonder of Imagineering as we highlighted in its own, in-depth feature, Modern Marvel: Carousel of Progress – a must-read for Walt Disney World fans. Comprised of five 240-person theaters in the building’s outer ring, each theater is simultaneously viewing a different part of the 21-minute show before the ring revolves, moving each audience to the next scene.
The show debuted at the World’s Fair in 1964, then (at the close of the Fair) it was transported to Disneyland to open alongside Walt’s New Tomorrowland in 1967. Longtime sponsor GE then asked for the show to move to the brand new Walt Disney World to play to its international, “Vacation Kingdom” audience in 1975, where it’s remained ever since. It’s no surprise that Carousel of Progress holds the record as the longest-running stage show, with the most performances, in the history of American theater, and it’s often said that Walt proclaimed Carousel of Progress as his favorite attraction, decreeing that it should never cease operation.
After the Carousel of Progress vacated the revolving theater at Disneyland, a new Audio-Animatronics show – America Sings! – moved in in 1974. The replacement actually lasted longer than the original, with America Sings closing in 1988 so that its Audio-Animatronics cast could be relocated to the new Splash Mountain. The ride building was gutted and is today home to Star Wars Launch Bay – a massive loss to Disneyland’s total capacity. But not as bad as the loss of the highest-capacity attraction on our list…
Location: Disneyland and Magic Kingdom
Theoretical: 4885 pph
Yet another ride originating at the World’s Fair (albeit in very different form), the PeopleMover was just one of Walt’s many authentic attempts at true innovation through Disneyland. Opened as part of that same 1967 New Tomorrowland that brought Adventure Thru Inner Space and Carousel of Progress, the PeopleMover was brave in its simplicity: a continuously-loading, constantly-moving aerial highway whisking guests over and throughout Tomorrowland.
More than a ride, Walt anticipated that the PeopleMover (as well as Tomorrowland’s Monorail) would actually be prototypes for the cities, campuses, and shopping centers of the future, modeling how high-capacity, low-emission public transportation could work. In fact, he imagined both of Disneyland’s rides as mere tests for the systems’ real application in his EPCOT city in Florida.
Ultimately, the story of Disneyland’s ride and its disgraceful closure and conversion into a high-speed (and quickly closed) thrill ride is told in its own Lost Legend: The PeopleMover and Walt’s Tomorrowland feature. A version of the attraction in Florida works on different principles (propelled via electromagnetic LIM motors rather than Goodyear tires) and plays differently into the Florida park’s Tomorrowland narrative. Still, you’d be hard-pressed to find a wait time for the PeopleMover over 10 minutes. That’s not because it’s not popular… it’s because the PeopleMover one of the highest-capacity attractions ever developed and Disney’s most astounding People-eater!