Wedding Planning Guide

wedding reception timeline

wedding welcome sign

Photo: Paige Jones

While most wedding receptions include the same flow of festivities, the order of these moments might vary depending on the couple’s preferences. Below are some suggestions for how much time to allot for each event, as well as a general order of things to help you plan the perfect wedding reception timeline.

Cocktail Hour

Time: 1 hour

Depending on the logistics of your wedding reception, cocktail hour typically begins immediately following the ceremony (if the ceremony and reception are held at the same venue), or about 30 minutes later (if there’s travel involved). Cocktail hour is the kickoff to the reception and should last at least an hour. During this time, the bar will be open so guests can queue up for a drink; the catering staff will typically also serve hors d’oeuvres, as well as passed drinks, to get guests mingling and in a celebratory mood. This is also a great opportunity to sneak out with your photographer for sunset photos.

Invitation to Dinner

Time: 15 minutes

Following cocktail hour, guests are invited to take their seats for dinner in the main dining room.

Grand Entrance

Time: 10 minutes

Once everyone has found their seats, the newlyweds are formally introduced to wedding guests, often to a lot of cheering and fanfare. Some couple’s opt to precede their reception grand entrance with an introduction of wedding party members.

First Dance

Time: 5 minutes

Keep the energy high by transitioning straight into your first dance with your bride or groom. You can certainly choose tdo dance for a full song, or ask your band or DJ to fade out about two minutes in. Also, if you think your crowd will be itching to get on the dance floor, you can also schedule a dance set consisting of three to five songs after the first dance to get the party started before dinner.

Welcome Toasts

Time: 5 minutes

Following your first dance, you and your new spouse might want to take the opportunity—while all eyes are still on you—to thank everyone for attending the celebration. A family member, often the parents or a family member of the couple, typically also offers a wedding reception welcome toast, thanking guests and inviting everyone to enjoy the meal.


Time: 45 minutes

Typically dinner will last about 45 minutes, depending on the meal-service style you choose for your reception (buffet, family-style, traditional three-course dinner, etc.).

Wedding Party Toasts

Time: 10 minutes

In between meal courses, wedding-party members are usually invited to say a few words—namely, the maid-of-honor and best man. This way, you’re spreading out the emotional, much-anticipated moments throughout the meal, which will help keep guests engaged. Encourage toasters to keep their speeches within two to four minutes.

Parent Dances

Time: 10-15 minutes

If you’re doing father-daughter and mother-son dances, then we recommend doing them after the toasts, and then transition to open dancing. Following the last parent dance, ask your band or DJ to switch to a high-energy song to get guests out of their seats and onto the dance floor.

Bouquet and Garter Toss

Time: 10 minutes

After the parent dances have wrapped up, next up in the wedding reception timeline are the bouquet and garter tosses. However, it’s becoming increasingly common to skip these traditions, so if the bouquet and garter tosses aren’t quite your style, don’t feel compelled to include them in your reception schedule.

Cake Cutting

Time: 10 minutes

About one hour before the conclusion of the reception, the catering staff should start preparing tables for dessert and coffee. Since the wedding cake cutting generally signals to guests that it's okay to leave soon thereafter, don't schedule it too early or things could start wrapping up before you're ready. This is also a good time for the couple to say a few words and thank guests for coming, if they have not already done so.

Last Song

Time: 5 minutes

Next, it’s back to open dancing until the last song, which should be scheduled five minutes before the conclusion of the reception.

Grand Exit

Time: 5 minutes

If you’re planning to depart from the reception in high style, schedule a grand exit as your final farewell. Some couples depart amid a sparkler send-off, while others opt for celebratory bells for guests to ring or noisemakers. Grab each other’s hand and make a dash for your waiting getaway car amid the cheers and well wishes.