How to Figure Out the Timeline for Your Wedding Reception

It's important to have a plan ahead of time.

The reception is typically the longest part of a wedding day, so it’s important to make sure everything goes smoothly.

Photo: McClanahan Studio

The reception is typically the longest part of a wedding day, so it’s important to make sure everything goes smoothly. This is the part that tends to be less about your new marriage and more about celebrating having your friends and family around to witness the occasion. As such, the focus tends to be about having fun, while still incorporating the traditions you’ve both been looking forward to and that people expect to see. Preparing a timeline is a good way to organize the evening to make sure that you’ll hit everything on your to-do list while still leaving time for dancing and other fun. Of course, not all timelines are created equal, so be sure to meet with your planner to figure out what is right for you.

Below are a few tips to help get you started, based on an average five-hour reception:

Always start with the cocktail hour, which should live up to its name and be a full hour, especially if your ceremony and reception are in different spaces to allow attendees some buffer time during their travels. Allow about 15 minutes after cocktails for guests to find their seats, followed by the grand entrances for the bridal party and newlyweds, if you choose to do them. 

Most people decide to do the first dance immediately after the grand entrance, followed either by a welcome speech or the father-daughter and/or mother-son dances. If you go with a speech first, typically the dinner service will commence after, with toasts sprinkled throughout as your guests eat. The parent dances may then occur after the toasts. In the case of not doing the first dance after the grand entrance, it should then occur after the toasts, but still before father-daughter, mother-son, or any similar dances.

The dance floor may be open at this point, followed by the cake cutting a half an hour to an hour later. Keep in mind that etiquette states attendees should not leave until after the cake is cut, so the later your reception is, the earlier this should be to give older guests and those with children at home an out if necessary. Depending on how much uninterrupted dance time you want, the bouquet and garter tosses – if you choose to do them – can either happen while people enjoy their cake, or in another 30-45 minutes or so. After that, it’s time to dance the night away until your grand exit!

Discover the pros and cons of having a seating chart, learn everything you need for the perfect cocktail hour, and gather expert tips on your wedding timeline here