Michael Zarcone, a Saratoga pharmacist who pioneered new methods of caring for severely disabled children, died this month while visiting one of his favorite places -- Disneyland.

"He was a kid at heart," said his daughter, Lindsay Zarcone, of San Jose.

Her father didn't have any children in tow at the Southern California amusement park and wasn't just there to sit down on a bench and watch other people have all the fun.

"He wanted to see Disneyland's Halloween decorations," his daughter said. "He was there for himself."

Zarcone was suffering from an aggressive form of Parkinson's disease when he fell to the ground on Oct. 19. His daughter, who has a degree in sports medicine, said Zarcone's struggle to get up probably dropped his blood pressure, inducing a heart attack. He was 63.

That Zarcone would die at a fantasy land made for children seems fitting. He dedicated most of his working life to helping profoundly disabled children live as normal lives as possible by getting them in public schools, taking them to pop concerts and on nature walks in their motorized wheelchairs. His mission often took him to Sacramento, where he lobbied elected officials for greater resources for such pediatric care.

State Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, remembered one of Zarcone's favorite methods. He would bring dozens of scrapbooks filled with photos of disabled kids enjoying themselves in cheerfully decorated rooms and give the books to legislators.

"I still have mine," Beall said. "I remember one girl in a photo. She's in a wheelchair and has five tubes in her. She's also blind, but she's still having fun. ... I think those scrapbooks were very successful."

Michael Zarcone was born on Dec. 15, 1949, in Pasadena and raised in Saratoga. His father sold windows and doors to homebuilders while his mother stayed home. Zarcone's brothers, Kenneth and Gregory, were born with developmental disabilities.

"He always had a heart for special needs kids," Lindsay Zarcone said, "because he was close to it."

She said her father showed his double-edged personality early in life. He was studious but also a fun-loving prankster. As an altar boy he once swapped red wine for water in a chalice for an unassuming Catholic priest who ended up with wine-stained fingers.

He might have become a doctor had his parents not encouraged him to pursue pharmacy, a job they considered more stable and financially lucrative. After graduating from the University of the Pacific, the young pharmacist agreed to a blind date with his future wife, Julie. He sent her flowers the day before, and then showed up an hour late for dinner.

"I should have seen that as a sign!" Julie Zarcone would tell her children with a chuckle many times.

According to his daughter, what Zarcone like most about his pharmacist's training at Stanford Hospital was going on rounds with doctors to learn which drugs worked best with patients. He soon realized lab work and dispensing drugs from behind a counter everyday wasn't for him.

He started a medical side business teaching patients how to administer intravenous drugs and liquids to themselves at home. His next medical venture was much more. He bought a skilled nursing home in Saratoga in the late 1980s and turned it into a "subacute" center. It specialized in the rehabilitation of severely injured or challenged patients by weaning them off breathing machines and teaching them how to use new, motorized wheelchairs so they could live at home.

Valley Medical Center, Silicon Valley's largest public hospital, soon called and asked if Zarcone's center would accept a disabled baby girl. He accepted her and then a few more disabled children even though the state would not contribute to their care because there was no official regulation or funding of such new, pediatric care centers. Severely disabled children in those days simply took up space in hospital intensive-care units and then were sent to state hospitals when they turned 18.

Zarcone and a partner in this endeavor, the late Connie Rolfe, a nurse, began to lobby state officials for recognition of subacute pediatric care. Rolfe wrote the manual for a level of care and cost midway between a full-service hospital and a skilled nursing home. Their children's hospital won its first stamp of approval in 1995. They named it Sub-Acute Saratoga Children's Hospital. Rolfe died a year late.

Zarcone eventually added two branches, a day care center for disabled children and a second residential hospital in Campbell.

Sen. Beall, who has a developmentally disabled stepson, said Zarcone set the national model for subacute, pediatric care.

"He gave them happy, healthy environments and recognized each one's spirit," the senator said, grappling with the site of Zarcone's last breath. "Disneyland, dreaming. I think he wanted his kids to have dreams, too."

michael zarcone
Born: Dec. 15, 1949, Pasadena.
Died: Oct. 19, 2013, Anaheim.
Survived by: Wife, Julie Zarcone, of Menlo Park; a daughter, Lindsay Zarcone, of San Jose; a son, Zachary Zarcone, of Redwood City; a sister, Janet Davis, and brother Kenneth Zarcone, both of Placerville; brother Gregory Zarcone, of San Jose.
Services: Celebration of life 2 p.m. Tuesday at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, 950 Santa Cruz Ave., Menlo Park.
Memorial: Donations may be sent to the Medically Fragile Children's Foundation of Northern California, 13425 Sousa Lane, Saratoga, CA 95070; www.mfcfnc.org.