POPULAR children's characters including Spongebob Squarepants and Dora the Explorer will come to life in south Essex as part of a new multi-million pound theme park.

The Echo was given a first look at the huge Nickelodeon park, which is set to change the face of Lakeside shopping centre when it opens in 2018.

It is being built next to the existing Vue cinema as part of £95million of investment designed to transform the site, in Thurrock, from a retail destination into an attraction offering “fun from sunrise to nightfall”.

Families from all over the region are expected to flock to the Nickelodeon fun park, which will offer interactive meet and greet experiences with Spongebob and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Intu, which owns Lakeside, has signed a deal with leading international leisure park opertator Parques Reunidos, and Viacom International Media Networks, which is behind the popular children's TV channel.

Developers have said the new 50,000sq ft site will provide “pure entertainment perfect for birthday parties and family get-togethers” with adventure zones and themed rooms, along with a dedicated food and drink area and shops selling Nickelodeon merchandise.

The new park will be part of a £95 million Intu investment into Lakeside, with other entertainment attractions set to open after the firm was granted outline planning permission

Details have not yet been finalised.

Lakeside manager Marc Myers said he is “incredibly excited” about the new development.

It is expected to bring a "significant" number of extra visitors to the site, on the top of the existing 23 million a year.

He said: “It’s fabulous news for us and fantastic news for all of Thurrock and the whole area.

“This is a huge big first step in creating a whole leisure experience at Intu Lakeside. The whole shopping industry has changed and what we have got to do is make sure that our destination always changes. It has to be more than just shops, and that’s what we have been moving towards over the last couple of years.

“All my kids have grown up with these characters – personally I am looking forward to meeting Dora the Explorer who always brought a smile to my face.”

Martin Breeden, development director at Intu, said the project was part of a“masterplan” forLakeside.

He said: “Intu Lakeside already has an annual footfall of 23 million, and this will see us take our first step in creating a new and compelling leisure experience that lasts from early morning through to late evening.

“The Nickelodeon Family Entertainment Centre, which will be elegantly integrated into the existing centre, will anchor the new leisure development."

Existing Nickelodeon attractions include a theme park at Blackpool’s Pleasure Beach.