The timeline of a wedding reception.

The key to a wedding day timeline that runs smoothly is planning. Breaking down your entire wedding day into an organized schedule helps to keep everything on track when the big day finally arrives. The more detailed you can make the plan, the better. As a rule of thumb, wedding ceremonies typically last 30 minutes to an hour—although short and sweet wedding programs are okay, too—and most wedding receptions typically last four to five hours.

Wedding timeline can be intimidating to write for the first time. Even if you’ve attended a lot of weddings, you probably haven’t paid much attention to how long each individual aspect lasted (barring the rare occasion that you end up in direct sunlight at an hour-long outdoor ceremony on a 90-degree day, which nobody forgets). Getting started can be the toughest part, so we put together templates for a few different types of weddings to ease you into the process.

For my fellow type-A personalities out there: keep in mind that your wedding day timeline is just a guideline! Your wedding will not fall to pieces if it runs a little bit ahead or behind. In fact, most weddings stray by at least fifteen to twenty minutes (if not more) from the timeline at different points during the day or night and then make up for that time later. We might extend the cocktail hour because people are having fun (or if the kitchen is running late). We might move up the first dance because everyone finished eating early. Your guests will neither notice nor care. Starting and ending the wedding on time are key—hitting everything in the middle in the approximate right order is important. Still, you usually have to adjust a little to fit the particular set of people in attendance. With all of that said, the day of you should definitely put someone else in charge of following the wedding timeline. You want to have so much fun at your wedding that you have no idea what time it is.


One last note before we get into examples: we did not write these timelines with any particular faith or tradition in mind. Catholic ceremonies with full Mass tend to last about an hour, many Jewish weddings include traditions like a ketubah signing or yihud that should be accounted for, and the list goes on. Be sure to make adjustments to suit you and your partner’s needs and desires.

When it comes down to it, your wedding reception is one of the biggest parts of your wedding night. Having a set timeline to stick to will ensure that you and your guests get the best possible experience to make it a night you won’t forget! Here are a sample wedding reception timeline and some other helpful tips to get the party started.

It’s always interesting to Google new “wedding trends” and see what people are saying is the “IT” thing for the coming wedding season. But sometimes, what these so-called “experts” are purporting to be the next big thing is really just a very expensive pain in the butt.

One of my new interns just found an article that says it’s all the rage to extend your wedding reception extra hours for more partying. Really? Really? Clearly, the person who is calling that a good trend isn’t actually a wedding planner or doesn’t actually interact with brides and grooms who are paying the tab. I wonder if this trend-setter ever dealt with a group of wedding guests who’ve had an unlimited open bar for more than five hours.

The intern brought this to my attention because she’s already heard me rant about some of our clients who insist on making their wedding night drag on for seven, eight or even nine hours. 

Fortunately, for wedding planners and vendors like me, most of the time, the reception gets limited to four or five hours. That’s what most venue and catering packages are based on. 

A crucial element of wedding reception planning is crafting a well-honed timeline for the evening. Your typical wedding reception runs about 4-5 hours—plenty of time for cocktails, dinner, toasts and, of course, dancing! Follow this foolproof wedding reception timeline to ensure a smooth, fun-filled evening of celebration for you and your guests. We’ve crafted for you a wedding reception timeline based on the average 4-hour wedding reception. Take a look and make adjustments to accommodate your style, guests and venue. Happy wedding planning!

How to Plan the Wedding Day Timeline

Guests Move From Ceremony into Cocktail Hour | 1 Hour

While your guests are mingling with each other after the ceremony is a good time to do your couples session and formal family photos. Although the bride and groom typically won’t be able to attend the cocktail hour, it’s still a nice time for your guests to relax and enjoy some hors d’ oeuvres and drinks before they go into the main reception.

And the ones who will keep drinking beyond that point are the ones who probably shouldn’t. When you provide unlimited booze for longer than that, you’re accepting responsibility for safe transportation home for your guests — at your own expense. The venue is liable and the wedding planner too. You’ll have to expect that some of your guests will have to be cut off before the event ends. There are times guests get drunk and out of control in just four hours — imagine how bad it could be after eight! And the drunker they are, the more they argue about having their car keys taken away. Sadly ironic.

After the ceremony, guests will head to the reception and get started mingling and enjoying cocktails and appetizers. The bride and groom generally use this time to take formal photos with the bridal party and family. The bride and groom can also set up a greeting line to welcome wedding guests as they arrive at the reception.

bride and groom

There are a lot of moving parts to a great wedding. After the ceremony, you’ll have a cocktail hour, wedding party introductions, toasts and a blessing, cake cutting, dinner, your First Dance, special dances for the bride and father, groom and mother, and the bridal party, a bouquet toss, garter toss, perhaps a Dollar Dance, Hora or other traditional dance, and of course plenty of open-floor dancing by your guests.

Guests Are Seated in Reception Hall | 15-20 Minutes

Your wedding coordinator and/or DJ/MC will get all of your guests rounded up and seated in the reception hall so that they are ready for the party to start. If necessary, they will explain how guests can find their seat and will give any other special announcements during this time. The start of getting your guests into the reception and the estimation of how long this will take based on how many are in attendance is an essential part of your wedding reception timeline.

Wedding Party Entrances | 5-10 Minutes

Your DJ/MC will announce your family and wedding party entrances here. This is a fun time for your wedding party and/or immediate family members to enter the reception hall with a funny dance or action that gets your guests excited and ready for your grand entrance.

Bride and Groom Grand Entrance | | 5-10 Minutes

This is your time to celebrate being introduced for the first time as the newlyweds

that you are. Pick your favourite party song and strut your stuff! Make sure the bride and groom entrance is separated from the other wedding party entrances on your wedding reception timeline so that you can have your own shining moment in the spotlight!

First Dance | | 5-10 Minutes

After making your grand entrance, all eyes are on you, and it is a perfect time to go straight into your first dance as a married couple. Whether your dance is choreographed or just a slow and sweet moment to a sentimental song, this is your moment to shine together.

The bride and groom should be the first to hit the dance floor with a romantic first dance. Next, the bride and her father and the groom and his mother should each have their own dance.

Welcome Speech | 5-10 Minutes

Now you and your forever honey are seated at your head table, and it’s time to thank your guests for coming. This can be done by the bride and groom or the mother and father of the bride. In some cases, this is also a good time for a blessing from a family member to commence the meal!

Dinner is Served | 1 Hour

Make sure you grab your food first, chow down and be sure to enjoy the wedding meal you selected! Then if you want, you can make your rounds and greet your guests before your return to your table for the toasts. This is if you haven’t set aside other time to mingle with your guests somewhere else in your wedding reception timeline. If you do choose to take the mealtime to greet or take photos with each table, make sure you allow yourself at least 3 minutes per table and adjust the

 mealtime accordingly.

Toasts | 30 Minutes

While your guests are still in their seats, finishing up their meal is a great time to go through the toasts. It’s a good idea to start with the Best Man and Maid of Honor toasts and then follow with anyone else you have asked to toast. If it wasn’t the bride and groom that thanked their guests for being a part of their wedding day before the meal, now would be a great time to do so… before the dance party starts!

Family Dances | 15 Minutes

This is a perfect time in the wedding reception timeline to start the dancing portion of your party with the mother & groom and father & bride dances. After the last family dance, you can have your DJ ask all your guests to come to the dance floor for a group photo. This gets everyone up and out of their seats and on the dance floor, so when the music hits you will have a good crowd to get the party started!

Open Up the Dance Floor | 30-45 Minutes

Now it’s time to get your groove on! Start off the power dance session with an upbeat song that will get everyone in the room moving. In between bursts of high energy songs interlaced with some slow jams is a great opportunity to do your garter and bouquet toss, or any other fun activities you have planned on your wedding reception timeline.

The DJ or band should be ready to keep the music rockin’ once the formal dances are complete. They should invite all guests onto the dance floor for a good time. Make sure to integrate your bouquet toss, garter toss and any other entertainment you’d like to include in this time-space.

Cake Cutting & Dessert | 30 Minutes

The cake cutting ceremony lets your guests know that the party is almost over, and can be done about an hour before your grand exit or the end of the reception. After the bride and groom cut their pieces of cake, have your DJ play some slow to mid-tempo songs while your guests enjoy their dessert. During dessert is also a good time to thank your guests for coming!

Pause festivities on the dance floor for the cutting of the cake. Keep in mind, and some guests will leave after the cake is cut. So, you may not want to cut the cake too early in the evening.

Reception Sneak out Photo Session | 20-30 Minutes

During the last dance set and after dessert is served is a great opportunity for the bride and groom to sneak out for their nighttime couples session. This is a very important time to schedule on your wedding reception timeline with your photographer. This is when they will get the romantic nighttime shots that document the perfect end to your beautiful wedding day. Just make sure to come back for your last dance!

Keep the Party Going | 30-40 Minutes

After dessert has been enjoyed and the sugar rush begins to kick in, it’s time to keep the dance party going! This last dance set will simultaneously coincide with your nighttime photo session on your wedding reception timeline. Have your DJ announce when he is playing the last song, so your guests know this is their last chance to get out there and dance before the party’s end. Choose an upbeat, big hit that will get everyone out on the dance floor to shut the party down!

Grand Exit | 10-15 Minutes

After the last dance, have your DJ/MC usher everyone outside for you to make your grand exit to your getaway car. Then, it’s honeymoon time… and we will just leave that timeline up to you.

If you plan to make a grand exit, arrange for your wedding coordinator to usher guests to the area where the sendoff will happen. Consider providing sparklers or bubbles for guests to add a fun element to your exit. These details also make for an incredible photoshoot!

Wedding days and nights are exhausting.

The brides and grooms are usually up early that day, and there’s no real opportunity for a nap, even if they could sleep. The added emotional stress takes a toll too. And this is usually coming on the heels of a rehearsal dinner the night before, or even more, activities if it’s a destination wedding. The result is that brides, grooms and guests are wiped out after a wedding ceremony and reception dinner and several hours of dancing. Your older guests will give up and go home before the cake if you put that off for too long to stretch things out.


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