Published: 06:00, 07 November 2019
| Updated: 16:16, 07 November 2019
The multi-million pound expansion of Ashford Designer Outlet officially opened today.
Following two years of construction work, shopping centre bosses cut the ribbon on the £90 million extension at 10am.
The opening of the 100,000 sq ft extension was set to be celebrated by a firework display and festive light switch-on event - but the event was cancelled days before the opening after animal safety concerns were raised.
Instead, Christmas-themed entertainment will run throughout the day keeping younger guests entertained - including an elf workshop and Santa's post room.
The Garden of Light installation - which recognises Kent's status as The Garden of England - allows shoppers to walk through the four seasons free-of-charge, starting in the winter.
Live music and prize giveaways are also taking place at the opening - which is one of Ashford Borough Council's Big 8 projects aimed at improving the town.
Chiefs at McArthurGlen first announced plans to expand the centre in November 2013, and planning approval was granted in September 2015 for the scheme - which is expected to create about 500 jobs.
Work on the £90 million development commenced last January, with the tented structure above the former food court being permanently removed later that year to make way for 50 new units.
It was the first time part of the iconic canopy had been taken down since the attraction opened in 2000.
However bosses suffered a setback when McDonald's announced it wouldn't be returning despite a proposed 200-seat franchise.
The popular children's play area was modernised during construction work, with a £400,000 replacement featuring a seven metre-high treehouse and augmented reality capabilities.
Despite a canopy above the new Garden of England themed playground - equipment was closed off during summer months due to "extreme weather conditions".
Work on the adjacent Newtown Road junction - carried out to improve access to the outlet's extension - saw months of closures, with the freshly resurfaced and signalled section being reopened in July.
A major visual aspect of the expansion is a 2,300 sq metre living wall, which will comprise of more than 120,000 plants. It covers the length of 60 double-decker buses and is currently the largest installation in Europe.
Construction had to be briefly halted in July after six illegal workers were detained at the centre, who'd been part of the extension's building force.
The month of October saw the biggest change to the centre, when seven new stores - including Dr. Martens, UGG, Dune, Joules and Karl Lagerfeld - threw open their doors on the same day.
Polo Ralph Lauren - which previously had two stores in the existing part of the centre - brought its men, women and children's range under one roof after moving into the centre's first ever two-storey shop.
Long-standing stores Cath Kidston and Hugo Boss also upsized and moved into brand new retail units within the expansion.
In August, KentOnline revealed that global sweet giant Haribo was moving into a centre - which would be the first store in Kent and the south east of England.
Today, the two-year construction project has come to an end, as bosses unwrap the brand new shopping centre.
Centre manager Peter Corr said: “As south east England’s leading designer outlet, our centre has seen 18 years of growth and evolution.
Centre manager Peter Corr and Damian Green make speeches before cutting the ribbon
"We welcome over 3.5 million visitors every year and in response to market demand, this autumn we are launching a new phase that will elevate the whole shopping experience for our guests and the retail environment for our brand partners”.
Speaking after the ribbon cutting ceremony, Ashford Borough Council chief executive Tracey Kerly said: "From our perspective it's an exciting development for Ashford.
"It really links the Outlet with the town centre, with the station becoming a central hub.
"It's great in that it's created 500 new jobs for local people and it's a fantastic opportunity to increase the top brands available in the town.
"It's wonderful to see the opening of something that's been in the making for a number of years."
New arrivals at Ashford Designer Outlet: