You’re ready to tie the knot—congratulations! Once you’ve said “I do” it’s time to kick off your marriage with a reception that feels authentically you, surrounded by the most cherished people in your life. Every couple is different, and every reception should be too. We’ve got the timeline covered so you can focus less on logistics and more on the fun-filled details that will celebrate your unique love.
There are many elements included in a wedding reception and without a carefully crafted reception timeline, planning can quickly feel overwhelming. To take the stress out of your wedding planning, we’ve crafted the perfect wedding reception timeline to help you visualize the overall flow of the celebration, making for a smooth planning process and allowing you to be present on your big day.
Wedding Reception Timeline
Cocktail Hour And Wedding Portraits (1-2 hours)
Typically lasting anywhere from 1-2 hours depending on your venue and bartender contracts, cocktail hour is typically the start of most wedding receptions and usually begins immediately after the ceremony. Not only is it the best transition from ceremony to celebration, but it also serves as passing time for guests while you’re away capturing photos with your wedding photographer.
Despite the name, the cocktail “hour” can actually last as long as you want. We do recommend it’s at least an hour to give all your guests plenty of time to settle in and prepare for your big arrival. Just be mindful of how long your bartenders are booked in contracts to make sure they don’t start packing up early.
From properly stocking your reception bar to selecting the overall style—there are endless tasks that go into bringing to life a cozy wedding reception, bar included. To kickstart your cocktail hour planning, check out our guide to your wedding reception bar.
Couples Entrance and First Dances (10-25 minutes)
Once memories have been expertly captured and cocktail hour is coming to an end, it’s time to make your grand entrance. Whether it’s just you and your partner or the whole wedding party, the reception entrance is a great way to add a unique, fun, and personalized touch to your big day.
After your grand entrance, it’s time for your first dance. Once you step on the dance floor, take a minute to soak in the applause while your DJ or wedding band transitions to your song. Then enjoy every second of that first dance as a married couple. Your entrance and first dance should last about 10-25 minutes while your guests are finding their dinner seats.
Welcome Toasts (10-15 minutes)
Before dinner kicks off, take a moment to stand together and thank everyone for attending. Your speech should take less than 10 minutes. Keep in mind, your welcome toast should be short and sweet. The longer, more emotional toasts will come later. Depending on your faith, you or a family member can then bless the meal.
Dinner And Speeches (1-1.5 hours)
Now it’s time to bring in the food. From formal plated meals to food trucks, there are endless dinner catering options. If you’ve decided on a seated dinner, your servers should be waiting with plates during the welcome toast so that they can begin serving immediately. If you’re having a buffet, your DJ will be in charge of controlling the flow of traffic by announcing when it’s time for each table to make its way to the food area.
Between courses—or about 20 minutes into dinner if you’re having a buffet—it’s time to grab your tissues and start speeches. It’s typical to have around three people make speeches. But it’s your big day, so it’s entirely up to you. Whether you opt to have best friends or close relatives, ask them ahead of time so they can prepare. When you do, you should also give them a time limit so they don’t run too long. We recommend they take place back-to-back so you only have to get the guests’ attention once.
Because wedding sizes, meal sizes, and meal styles can vary so much, the amount of time you dedicate to this will be unique. As a general rule, all of the speeches shouldn’t last longer than 20 minutes and dinner should last about an hour to an hour and a half.
Parent Dances (30 minutes)
As dinner is finishing up, it’s time to transition into the dancing phase of the evening—starting with the father-daughter or mother-son dance. Typically, the father-daughter dance happens first, but you can do these dances in either order that you prefer or even at the same time.
Dancing (1-2 hours)
With all your guests focused on the dance floor for the parent dances, have your DJ transition immediately into more upbeat tunes. You and your new spouse should be the first ones back on the dance floor to get the party started. Your guests will follow your lead, especially if you’re using the music on this wedding reception playlist. This would also be the time to fit in any other traditions or games you want to include. Dancing will typically last the rest of the night, with about an hour to spare for the last two activities.
Cake Cutting (30 minutes)
Now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for—dessert! Maybe you’re having a large, tiered wedding cake or maybe you want to ditch tradition and have a donut wall. Dessert is typically a sign that the wedding reception is almost over, so we recommend putting it no more than one hour before your grand exit. Most guests will stay until after the cake is cut, so this is a good time marker to avoid people leaving too early.
Grand Exit (15-25 minutes)
While you two are saying your final farewells, your planner should be getting your guests in place for your grand exit. If you’re not into the idea of a grand exit, check out our other ideas for memorable ways to end your reception. From sparklers to driving off on a brand new motorcycle—we’ve seen it all. Whatever you choose, your exit is sure to be the perfect way to end an epic wedding reception.
A Reminder About Your Wedding Reception Timeline
Your wedding reception should be a reflection of you, your partner, and your love. If you don’t want to include any of the elements we’ve listed, don’t. Whether you host your reception in your favorite restaurant or continue the party in your unique wedding venue, this guide should be taken as just that–a guide. If your timeline runs over, your wedding planner can always help you get back on track. So relax, and enjoy the best party you’ll ever throw. You’ve earned it.
From decor to the timeline—there’s a lot that goes into the planning of a reception. We’ve taken care of the logistics so you can focus on the fun elements like nailing your reception design. Check out these tips for decorating your reception without having to break the bank to get started.