One of the most important parts of wedding planning is creating a timeline for your wedding reception. This timeline can help you, and/or your wedding planner, ensure the reception moves smoothly. It can also help you incorporate all the activities you’re hoping to enjoy during this special part of the day.
As you create your timeline, think about how you see each aspect of the reception playing out and plan your time accordingly. For example, if you know you want four people to give a toast, you should allocate more time for toasts. It’s also wise to create a time buffer of five to 10 minutes between each phase of the celebration.
To help you kickstart this process, here’s our guiding template for how to create a wedding reception timeline.
3:30 pm – Receiving line
Kick off the post-ceremony festivities with a receiving line that allows you and your spouse to greet guests who made it to your wedding. Many couples choose to do this as guests migrate to cocktail hour; this way, they can have appetizers and drinks to occupy their time as they wait for you. It’s best to allocate about 30 minutes for 100 guests.
4:00 pm – Cocktail hour
After guests get their time with you in the receiving line, they’ll move on to cocktail hour where libations and hors d’oeuvres await. This is a fun time for guests to mingle and reminisce about your lovely ceremony.
You can choose to join guests for cocktail hour, or slip away to have a few quiet moments with your groom or bride before the reception. Some couples also take photos during this time.
5:00 pm – Reception space migration
About an hour after cocktail hour begins, have your wedding planner, or a friend or family member, start shepherding guests to the reception space. You want them to have enough time to find their table, if you have assigned tables, or make their own seating selections before you make your grand entrance. It’s also a good idea to have the bar, and some additional hors d’oeuvres, ready to go as guests enter this space.
5:15 pm – Grand entrance and first dance
Now is the time for the newlyweds to make their grand entrance. When the emcee gets the go ahead, they’ll announce you and your partner. You’ll then walk into the reception space to a chorus of whoops and applause. As soon as you enter, it’s customary to go straight into your first dance.
If you want to enjoy some dancing with guests before moving into the rest of the reception, add another 30 minutes to this part of the reception.
5:25 pm – Welcome toasts
When you’ve sealed that first dance with a kiss, it’s time to move on to the welcome toasts. These toasts are typically done by the wedding hosts, which might be your parents or in-laws or you and your spouse. At many weddings, the father of the bride speaks first.
These toasts don’t have to be too long. They’re just an opportunity to express a quick “thanks” to all the guests who came and get them amped up for the fun to come.
As dinner will follow, this is also the time to give instructions for the meal. For example, if it’s buffet style, you can let everyone know that the emcee will call out table numbers when it’s their turn to hit the buffet.
5:35 pm – Dinner
This is when your caterer gets to shine. Depending on the type of meal you’ve selected, guests will now be served a variety of courses, or they’ll get to dive into a buffet. While it’s tempting to mingle during this time, be sure that you and your spouse eat a good dinner so you have energy to sustain you for the rest of the night.
6:30 pm – Bridal party toasts
As dinner starts to wind down, your emcee will announce that it’s time for the toasts. It’s best to give those who are giving toasts a heads-up about 10 minutes before this announcement; that way, they have time to finish their dinner and look over their speech.
In terms of speeches, it’s customary for the best man and the maid-of-honor to share a bit about the happy couple, but you can also ask parents or other loved ones to say a few words. Note that you’ll want to make this request well in advance of the wedding day so they have time to prepare something. After your loved ones wrap up their speeches, you and your spouse can say a few words.
Tip: Let the people who are giving toasts know how long they have. Five minutes is often a good amount of time for a speech. It’s also wise to not open up the toasts to anyone who wants to talk. This can really stretch out the toasts.
7:00 pm – Parent dances
When the toasts are complete, it’s time to show your parents some love. This portion of the reception usually includes a mother-son dance and a father-daughter dance, but you and your spouse can choose to dance with whomever you like. For example, if your spouse was primarily raised by their grandmother, they can select her for this dance. In terms of how much time to allocate for these two dances, the length of the songs you choose will be a good guide.
If you want to do some more dancing before moving to the cake cutting, add about 30 minutes to this portion of the timeline.
Tip: Ideally, you and your spouse will select your songs well in advance and, if possible, do a few trial runs with the people you’ll dance with.
7:30 pm – Wedding cake cutting
Now it’s dessert time. Following the parent dances, the emcee will announce the cake cutting, and you and your spouse will make your way to the cake table. Most couples choose to hold the cake knife together as they cut that first slice. You can then go wild by smooshing the cake in each other’s faces, or opt for the less messy version of simply feeding each other a bite.
When you’re done, the caterers can move in to cut up the rest of the cake for guests. If you’d like to save the top tier to freeze and eat at your one-year anniversary, be sure to let the caterer know.
7:40 pm – Bouquet and garter toss
See who destiny selects to be the next lucky lass and lad to find true love by tossing the bouquet and garter belt. Many couples choose a special song to play as all the single ladies gather for the bouquet toss, and they choose another song when the bride or groom removes the garter from your leg and tosses it to the single men.
7:50 pm – Dancing
You’ve now checked all the customary reception activities off the list and are ready to dance the night away. Get the dancing started by gathering your wedding party on the dance floor and requesting an upbeat song that’s sure to pull more guests to the floor. The DJ will then likely alternate between fast and slow songs, until it’s time for the last dance. The emcee will make an announcement when it’s time for this special moment.
Tip: Ask your wedding planner or emcee to give you a heads up about 15 minutes before the DJ plays the last song, so you have time to start saying your goodbyes.
9:30 pm – Grand exit
When it’s time to go, it can be fun to have your wedding planner pass sparklers out to guests. You can also have the sparklers line the outdoor walkway you’ll use to get to your car. Be sure that your photographer is ready to snap shots as you and your spouse make your grand exit through a sea of crackling light.
10:00 pm – After-party
If you think you’ll want the party to last well past the reception, make a plan with guests for where to go. Some couples choose a bar or club, while others host a get-together at a loved one’s home near the reception venue.
Tip: If you won’t be in a location with a DJ, create a playlist for the after party.