"I just can't believe it finally surfaced after 24 years. Also, I just can't believe the plastic lasted that long."

Heidi Mozzo was speaking of a green soda bottle recently washed up by nor'easter in North Carolina - completing a 300 mile journey from Ocean City, N.J., that began with her entry in a "Message in a Bottle Contest" in 1985.

The Shore town figures she's the winner - even if the contest officially ended Aug. 1 that year.

The Claymont, Del., mother will not only a big box of Shriver's saltwater taffy, but a free several-day stay, said city spokesman Mark Soifer.

Today, she accepted his invitation to be a special guest, along with husband Anthony and daughter Emily, 2, during the town's First Night celebration on New Year's Eve.

The town will also have its end-of-year run into the ocean - "the polar bear thing," Soifer said - but Heidi won't be taking part.

"Oh no," she said. "No. That's not for me."

In the summer of 1985, Heidi Mozzo was 6-year-old Heidi Werstler of Earlville, Pa., enjoying her family's yearly O.C. vacation.

She and a friend from the beach pestered Boardwalk merchants until they found a bottle for the contest.

Heidi's mom, Bonnie, filled out the form that went inside, and her father, Harvey, made sure the cap was on extra-tight.

The bottle was dispatched, with at least a dozen others, either from a boat or off the Music Pier at Moorlyn Terrace, Soifer said.

Mozzo doesn't remember who gave her the bottle, and didn't see it launched.

"I remember that Channel 6 was there, because they were interviewing kids that were there, but I never made it on TV," she said.

Then, a couple of week ago, the bottle was found by a worker at Sanderling Resort & Spa in Duck, N.C., on the Outer Banks. The resort contacted Soifer's office, per instructions on the form.

Mozzo, who processes payroll for a large corporation, said she hasn't been to Ocean City for years, because recent coastal getaways have been to Myrtle Beach, S.C., popular with her in-laws.

But she still fondly recalls Ocean City's rides, fries, funnel cake and Mack & Manco's pizza.

She's also hoping her equally surprised mom can go. After all, she filled out the form that started the bottle's great adventure.

Contact staff writer Peter Mucha at 215-854-4342 or pmucha@phillynews.com.