Exactly one year ago today I watched the Magic Kingdom fireworks display- Wishes- for the first time. It was our first day off after arriving in Florida and we were all disappointed to learn that we weren't allowed into the Disney Parks yet.
Instead we slept off our outrageous hangovers from the throw-in that the other cast members had organised to welcome us the night before; then spent the evening at what would go on to become my favourite place in the entire world.
Disney's Polynesian Resort.
We had dinner and drinks inside before moving onto the beach with cocktails. Tangled was playing right up until the moment that the fireworks started; then we stood and watched, open-mouthed and tear stained as the reality of our new lives hit us.
The week that you leave home to do the Cultural Representative Programme is an emotional one. You've said goodbye to your job, friends, family, house, dog, rabbit and Cadbury's chocolate. Most people don't know anyone else who has ever done the programme, so it feels like you're the only person ever to be in this situation, which makes it feel like a big deal.
And it is a big deal.
For every single person in my arrival group coming to work in Walt Disney World was a dream come true: something that they had been wishing on stars their whole lives for.
Imagine that. Imagine wishing and dreaming about something for as long as you can remember. Imagine going through a lengthy and draining application process. Imagine putting your life on hold and waiting around with baited breath for six months to find out whether you got through. Imagine waiting for another six before your dream can actually happen. Imagine then packing up your life, saying goodbye to everyone and everything you hold dear and boarding a plane alone taking you across the world. A lot can happen in your head and heart in that time and by the time you arrive in Florida you are physically and emotionally exhausted.
Yes, it's what you always wanted; yes, you made it happen and yes it was all your decision, but it doesn't mean it's easy. It doesn't mean you didn't doubt yourself. It doesn't mean you didn't hesitate when you handed in your notice at the job you loved, turned down the invitation to your best friend's wedding, blew kisses at the bump that you knew would be a one year old boy when you returned, and hugged your parents for the last time in twelve months.
So to then find yourself standing on a beach as Jiminy Cricket tells you that 'the most fantastic, magical things can happen and it all starts with a wish'- telling you that wishes lead to wonderful places, using all your favourite stories and characters from various points in your life to demonstrate this- is somewhat overwhelming.
By the time he was telling me that 'any wish is possible, all it takes is a little courage to set it free' I was convinced that he was talking directly to me.
Those of you who have met me for longer than five minutes will know that I am a highly emotional person. I once cried telling everyone at work what had happened in the film I had watched the night before (Instructions Not Included- have you seen it? Never ask me to tell you what happens. I've got tears pricking my eyes just writing the title). But there are plenty of others in my arrival group and on this programme that will tell you that your first Wishes is emotional. I have been best friends with Dumbo for one year and three days and never, ever seen her cry. But even she shed a few tears at that first Wishes (very discreetly because I didn't know until she told me recently, but still- she admits it's emotional.)
On the anniversary of my first full day in Florida I went to watch Wishes at Magic Kingdom with Dumbo. For the first time I saw real tears in her eyes, and heard her voice crack with emotion. As it finished I croaked that we shouldn't talk for a minute. Tears were streaming down my face and hers, and I thought- as I had done on that first night- that those fireworks are so emotional for anyone in our position. Anyone who is here on a dream come true.
We turned to leave.
There was a group of Brazilian teenagers in front of us, hugging each other and wiping their eyes. There was a couple, standing perfectly still and staring at the castle- having not moved since the show finished. There was a Grandma dabbing gracefully at her eyes with a handkerchief as her family collected their bags together to leave.
And finally, after an entire year of watching that show and believing it was extra special to me, I realised.
That show is extra special to every single person that watches it.
Every single person is dreaming of something. Every single person watching that show is imagining their own dream coming true and recalling memories of wishes that have been fulfilled.
As I watched it that last time I saw my own memories flash before my eyes; like a show reel of my year in Orlando.
It got me thinking about not only all the wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime experiences I've had, but the day-to-day memories I've made, and what I'm going to miss most about life here when I leave...
1.Peanut Butter Cups.
I have been repeatedly assured that they do exist in the UK but I had never seen them before I came out here so feel like they are only a part of Florida life. Whatever the occasion, Peanut Butter Cups you have served me well and I will miss you.
2. Popping to Walt Disney World.
There was one particular day this year that I had arranged to Skype my mum and needed to confirm the time. I messaged her to let her know that I was just nipping in to Magic Kingdom but wouldn't be long.
She replied 'that works nicely because we just need to pop to Aldi.'
Just not the same, is it?
3. Eating out three times a day.
I am the first to admit that before I moved out here all of my knowledge of America was based on television shows: primarily Friends and Sex and the City. One thing that I never understood in these shows in why on earth they made jokes about the fact that they never used their ovens. Why didn't they?!
Having lived here for a year, I understand.
People now make those jokes about me.
Obviously I am aware that Americans do cook at home (apart from anything I've watched enough Desperate Housewives to know that), but for single, childless young things living in apartments and earning money it is so easy to eat out for every meal for five months without even noticing.
Perkins, Fridays, BJs, IHOP and Applebee's, I thank you.
4. Always having something to do.
I'm not particularly easily bored. I'm a busy person and would probably manage to make myself a hefty to do list locked in an empty room. But I think that Orlando might just be the most entertaining place on the planet. If I have a spare twenty minutes I can lay by the pool, spare hour I can pop in to work early and get lunch in France; a free day and the possibilities are endless.
London, you have a lot to live up to....
5. The weather.
6. Ibar and Cowboys.
Ibar is a cheesy nightclub in downtown Orlando that involves dancing the night away to Backstreet Boys, NSync and Spice Girls, doing the standard routine to I get knocked down, crying through Closing Time and leaving with inexplicably filthy shoes. It's where I met Drake of Drake and Josh fame, saw Mr Belding from Saved By The Bell and watched Tiffany perform (you will know who she is- she released the original I Think We're Alone Now before Girls Aloud covered it.)
Cowboys is a country and western bar similar to the one that Susan and Edie go to in Desperate Housewives. Everyone wears cowboy boots and stetsons, drinks free beer and line dances to everything from Country Girl Shake It For Me to 22 by Taylor Swift. Amazing.
7. My job.
A few nights ago I went for dinner with some friends after work and we began laughing about the things we love to moan about. I do love to moan about my job. It exasperates me every single day. When I first started working in Walt Disney World, a friend warned me that even the most normal human beings leave their brains (and their manners) at the entrance to the theme parks.Even that couldn't have prepared me for the ridiculousness that is working here.
But I get mad at my job in the same way that I get mad at my little brothers.
With affection. And because it is abundantly obvious to everyone that I love it really. Only my colleagues and I are allowed to criticize it- if you don't work with me- don't even try.
The truth is that I love my job and as grateful as I feel that I will never have to explain Bubble and Squeak again (if you ask me after 5th March expect a sarcastic answer or eye-roll only), I know I'll miss it as soon as I return my dress and pack up my name tag.
The main reason that I am going to miss my job is also the main reason that I am going to miss Disney, Orlando, America and my life out here....
8. The People.
*The Seven Dwarves.
The seven dwarves are seven of the nicest people I have ever been lucky enough to meet. I have spent a lot of time working and socialising with these girls and find myself wearing a huge grin when I see any of their names on the schedule with me.
They are fascinating.
They come out with phrases like 'I was working as a Guest Relations Manager for the whole of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival', and secretly behind each others' backs tell me that they don't feel anywhere near as interesting/beautiful/funny as the others.
Actually they're all interesting, beautiful and funny in equal measure and are all destined for even more magic after Disney.
Scuttle, Baloo, Olaf, Pinocchio, Fix-It Felix, Toulouse and Dopey are the mainly-Scottish, cheeky chaps that have somehow managed to keep me sane all year. They've made me laugh, hugged me when I cried, reassured me when I was doubting myself, fixed my broken internet, my broken heart and several broken glasses; they looked after me when I sliced my finger open, got sick at work and sick of guests; they've constantly entertained me and provided me with enough material to write my first sit-com.
To seven of the funniest, most thoughtful and genuine people I have ever met: thank you.
Vanellope is the only person that I remained friends with straight from my interview for this programme in February 2012. We spent the entire day together, interviewed at the same time, swapped contact details and have continued to communicate ever since. I visited her hometown before coming to America and visited several places there solely on her recommendation.
Vanellope views the world like nobody else I have ever met, and has given me a perspective on life that I never knew I'd have.
Who knew that Walt Disney World held such hidden gems?
*The Blue Fairy.
One of the funniest and most thoughtful people I have ever met. She has had a far bigger impact on those around her this year than she will ever realise.
*Jasper and Horace.
The two superstars who have driven the whole of the UK pavilion around for the past seven years, and have been a huge part of mine.
Jasper was there for for my first, terrifying night out. He drove me to the hotel my mum was staying at to see her for the first time in eight months. He was there for first kisses, break-ups, excitement at extensions and sadness at saying goodbye. He literally sees and knows everything, and provides advice and support when he sees fit.
Jasper and Horace drive hundreds of us around and see people leave and arrive every single week. So I was genuinely flattered the other day when I hopped into the taxi and was greeted with: 'Rebecca! I heard you're leaving this week, this makes me sad.'
*Roz and Rafiki.
These two women have been having a huge impact on The Rose and Crown and the cultural representatives who work there for more years than I could work out, and they definitely do not get enough credit for it. I was terrified of both of them when I arrived and now have no idea how I would have coped without them. From Rafiki deciding to join me as I cleaned my tables to discuss the menopause to Roz revealing the dirty little secrets of the new people before I'd even learnt their names, they have kept me thoroughly entertained, sent me crazy and kept me sane: the place simply wouldn't be the same without them.
Merida has a theory that they're actually robots designed by Disney and do not exist in the real world at all. I like to think she's right.
*Merida and Tigger.
Merida and Tigger are two of the most magical people I have ever met. They're both gorgeous and funny and happy to be who they are.
They have provided me with some of my favorite memories of the year and should both be working for Disney for the rest of their lives.
One of my favorite moments at work was when our highest manager, who brings out in me a half-bow and a ridiculous posh accent when she walks in, told Merida that she's not really a princess. If looks could kill our manager would no longer be with us.
Merida is one of those very rare people (that I wish I was too), who have absolutely no fear of authority. She calls Manager Joe Joseph when he annoys her, blames our highest manager when she smashes a glass and tells the management team when she feels that they're being unprofessional. And she's only 20.
What a hero.
*My arrival group.
Russell, Woody, Aladdin, Ariel, Daisy Duck and Periwinkle. We did it! And it wouldn't have been the same without you....
*Piglet, Dumbo and Sid.
These three are true friends. They are the only three people I have met this year that I know I could tell anything to and trust that nobody would ever find out. They have been there for every single second of this journey, and I know that they will continue to be there for the rest of my adventures. I could write a novel just on memories that these have given me and why I think they are so wonderful. I won't. But I could.
Dale is absolutely the best thing about this year. That's all.
I mentioned above that the week that you leave home to do the Cultural Representative Programme is an emotional one.
So is the week that you leave the Cultural Representative Programme to go home. You've said goodbye to your job, friends, new family, house, Mickey, Cinderella and peanut butter cups. You've seen others leave but they weren't in your arrival group. It never felt like your group was going to leave, which makes it feel like a big deal.
And it is a big deal.
Yes, you've missed home; yes, you're excited to see your family and yes you always knew it was just for a year, but it doesn't mean it's easy.
Vanellope very wisely reminded me a few days ago that there are very few other situations where you would live somewhere for an entire year- make a life there, have a job and an apartment and amazing friends, then just up and return to your old life, leaving everything behind. It's a big deal.
Except I won't be leaving everything behind. I'm taking so much with me; so many wonderful memories, life-long friends and lessons learned.
So as I head to Magic Kingdom for the last time, to join the hoardes of dreamers as we make our wishes and silently appreciate the ones that have already come true, I will once again experience the show reel of my year in Florida.
But this time, I will also be thinking of the future.
You see, the most fantastic, magical things can happen. And it all starts with a wish....