The key to a wedding reception timeline that runs smoothly is planning ahead. Breaking down your entire wedding day timeline helps you stay organized and on-track when the day arrives. The more detailed you can make the plan, the better. Wedding ceremonies typically last 30 minutes to an hour, and most wedding receptions last 4 to 5 hours. Expert wedding planner Tessa Lyn Brand of Tessa Lyn Events helped us create a sample modern wedding reception timeline based on a wedding starting at 5:30 p.m.
This wedding reception program also assumes the ceremony and reception are being held in the same venue, which means guests won't need to travel to a separate party site. Thus, cocktail hour kicks off right after the ceremony's conclusion, followed by dinner, toasts, dancing, and cake! If you're having your wedding reception at a separate site, make sure to build in a travel time for the guests to make their way to the post-ceremony festivities.
Use the following sample wedding day timeline as a guide to create your own!
Wedding Day Timeline and Wedding Reception Timeline
2 p.m. Photographer Arrives
The wedding photographer should arrive about 30 minutes before the bride is ready. During this time, the photographer can get detail shots of the dress, rings, invitation, etc.
2:15 p.m. Bridesmaids are dressed and ready, bride’s hair and makeup is complete
Unless you want girls photos all in matching robes, the bridesmaids as well as the mother-of-the-bride should be dressed and ready by the time the bride’s hair and makeup is complete. This way, everyone can be in the background of the photos featuring the bride getting dressed.
2:30 p.m. Bride Gets Dressed
Once you are mostly dressed, have your photographer capture your mom or maid-of-honor helping you zip up your dress and put your earrings and jewelry on.
2:45 p.m. Bridal Portraits
3:10 - 3:30 p.m. Bridesmaids Photos
These photos are meant to be casual and fun, capturing the moments of celebration between the bride and her friends. If you want any special shots, such as toasting with champagne, make sure you have the props ready (clean champagne flutes, for instance).
3:30 p.m. First Look
The first look is a special moment where the groom sees his bride for the first time, away from the hundreds of eyes that will be watching during the ceremony. "Let this be a special moment with just the bride and groom, and have your bridal party and families wait in the getting ready locations while you go with your photographer and videographer," Brand advises brides.
3:30 - 4:10 p.m. Bride and Groom Photos
4:10 - 5:00 p.m. Wedding Party and Family Photos
"Have your family meet the coordinator, dressed and ready, in the lobby of your venue at about 4 p.m. Make sure your photographer has a shot list of every family combination you want captured, and designate a family member to help the photographer identify each family member. It will be much easier for your sibling or cousin to go find Aunt Linda if she wandered away because they already know who she is," says Brand.
5:30 p.m. Start Time Listed on Wedding Invitation
Most weddings don't start at the actual start time listed on the invitation. "Plan to start your ceremony about 15 minutes later than the invitation time. This gives guests a little extra time if they are running late and ensures all the seats will be filled! You don’t want anyone to miss your special moment due to traffic," says Brand.
Plan to have music during this time, either from a DJ or a string quartet. Or, if the wedding is happening indoors, you can play a slideshow of special moments between the bride and groom.
5:45 p.m. Actual Start Time
5:45 - 6:15 p.m. Ceremony
This is the time block that varies most for weddings. The time really depends on the type of ceremony you're having. Typically, non-religious ceremonies last around 20 minutes, while religious based ceremonies last up to an hour.
6:15 - 7:15 p.m. Cocktail Hour
Invite guests to cocktail hour and take some post-ceremony photos with the photographer. Depending on how many photos you want to take, you can join cocktail hour halfway through, or spend some time in the bridal suite having appetizers and drinks privately. This will give you a much-needed break to re-energize for the rest of the night!
7 p.m.-ish Sunset Photos
Sunset photos are an opportunity you don't want to miss out on. Set aside time in your wedding itinerary to take more bride and groom portraits during the sunset. "Timeanddate.com will give you the exact sunset time on your date and location to the minute. I find it is almost always completely accurate," says Brand.
7:15 p.m. Guests invited to Dinner
7:30 p.m. Grand Entrance and First Dance
"Timing works great if you go from your grand entrance right into your first dance," says Brand. "This keeps the formalities and the fun going. You can dance for a full song for your first dance, or fade out two minutes in. You can also add a dance set consisting of three to five songs after the first dance to get the energy up before dinner."
7:35 - 7:45 p.m. Welcome Toasts from Hosts
The first two toasts in the wedding reception timeline are considered welcome toasts and they are typically offered by the parents or a family member of the bride and groom.
7:45 - 8:30 p.m. Dinner
8:30 - 8:40 p.m. Bridal Party Toasts
As dinner is wrapping up, the best man and maid-of honor can offer their toasts during this slot of the wedding schedule. "For all toasts, set a time limit and recommend your speaks stay within them. I always say no more than five minutes," says Brand.
8:40 - 8:50 p.m. Parent Dances
"If you are doing father-daughter and mother-son dances I recommend doing them after the toasts, and then transition into an open dance floor. After the last dance, switch to a high-energy music and have your band or DJ encourage everyone to join you on the dance floor," says Brand.
9:30 - 9:45 p.m. Cake Cutting, Bouquet Toss and Garter Toss
First up is the cake cutting, followed by bouquet toss and garter toss (if desired). This is also a good time for the bride and groom to say a few words and thank their guests for coming.
9:45 p.m. Open Dance Floor
Dance until the night ends!
11:30 p.m. Grand Exit
Arrange for a final song with your DJ or band ahead of time, and also arranged to be cued that the song is coming up. Say your final goodbyes and hug your final hugs. If you're having a exit with sparklers, have someone organize all the guests along your exit path and hand out sparklers. When your final song comes on, grab hands and make a dash for happily ever after!