Wedding Reception Timeline

Dec 28, 2020

You’ve locked in your wedding photographer, wedding venue, band, wedding celebrant, and now, the job is to work out your wedding reception timeline. This might seem a little daunting, but with a little careful planning and breathing room given to all of the moving parts, it will make your reception exactly as you’d imagined, and probably most importantly, an incredible, slick night for your wedding guests.

When planning your wedding reception timeline, the most important thing is to think about two things:

wedding reception timeline tips
Lilli and Jakes Castlemaine Wedding reception
  1. Your guests are happy being a part of a formal experience. This means that they’re happy being told what to do, and happy knowing upfront what the expectations are. No-one likes being left wondering what to do next: if there is a lengthy period where not much is happening, make sure they know that ahead of time (possibly on the invitations), and make it entertaining for them by breaking it up with little sprinkles of surprise here and there in your wedding reception schedule.
  2. Give more breathing room to each element of the evening than you think you might need. We’re human. Which means we’re all over the place. If you think it’ll take 25 seconds to wrangle Bob and Jan for the family photo, that will all come undone when it turns out Bob has gone for a piss and no-one can find him. Add a little more padding time than you think you might need to account for the natural dance of what a wedding is: a gathering of all your favourite humans in one place.

Sample wedding reception timeline: a sample wedding reception order of events

Here is a rough sample wedding reception timeline. All timings are just estimates for illustrative purposes, but they also represent a rough timeframe that I think would be appropriate in most circumstances.

  1. The Post Ceremony Glow
  2. The Grand Wrangle
  3. Wedding Party Entrances
  4. First Dance
  5. Welcome Speech
  6. Entree and Dinner
  7. Sneaky Sunset Photoshoot
  8. Community Toasts
  9. Family Dances
  10. Dance Floor Open
  11. Cake Cutting and Dessert
  12. Dancefloor Anarchy
  13. The Exit

1. The Post-Ceremony glow/cocktail hour (1 hour)

The post-ceremony hour is a glow-up: you’re both stoked, so are your family and friends. This is typically the part when the congratulations happen, family photos, and maybe even your portrait session. Many photographers will take up the entire cocktail hour with the portrait session, which I think is a real shame, as this is an incredible time to hang out a little with the folks you’ve invited along for the ride. So typically, i’ll break the portrait part of the day into two smaller sessions. So the post-ceremony hour might look like 10 minutes spent on congratulations, 10 minutes on family formals, 15-20 minutes on portraits, and then the rest of that time hanging with your crew.

2. The Grand Wrangle (about 20 minutes)

This time-slot assumes everything is happening on the same site: if your wedding reception venue is far from your ceremony venue, then adjust and add travel time to suit. The grand wrangle is the part where you try and herd your community into the seated reception area. This isn’t a quick affair, and by the time someone has first begun screaming their guts out for everyone to come inside until the last butt has been gracefully draped across the final chair, you’ll be looking at possibly 20 minutes. At this time, your wedding MC can announce anything they need to, and any formalities as per your wedding reception timeline.

3. Wedding party entrances (10 minutes)

This is when, like a herd of majestic gazelles cantering across the plains, you and your crew make your way in, to your choice of music (if that’s how you’ve set it up). In practice this might only take 5 minutes, but as always, consider any extra time that might be consumed by any delays, unsignalled bathroom breaks by your best man, etc.

4. First Dance (15 minutes)

a photo of a wedding couples first dance
From Zoe and Adams wedding featured on Vogue

The first dance: this is exactly as it says on the box! If you’re doing a first dance, this is where you get to show off just how many practice sessions you failed to show up for. Good thing is, no-one cares how fancy your footwork is – your family and friends are just stoked to see you having a blast with each other. The dance itself might only be a few minutes, but when planning your wedding reception timeline, consider the extra time involved if your crew swamp the dance-floor with you, and any other minor delays either side.

5. Welcome Speech (10 minutes)

a photo of a wedding couples welcome speech at their wedding reception
From Liv and Adam

This is your welcome speech for your community, to bring them all into the evenings proceedings. Maybe here, you’d also like to consider an acknowledgement of country.

6. Entree and Dinner (1 hour)

an image of a wedding reception dinner
See this Rupert on Rupert wedding

Again, this is as it says on the box. You’ll likely be served first (if your wedding caterer knows what they’re doing), and my strongest recommendation is to make sure you knock down your meal in full, as everything will be pulling at your attention. As majestic as the wedding meal is, you also want to consider that getting some energy in is also the aim of the game here. Consider if you want to make your way around to all the tables – it’s a great way to make your guests feel loved and for many of them, might be the only opportunity they get to give you a hi-5 over the entire day.

7. Sneaky sunset photoshoot (10 minutes)

See more of this moody couple shoot

The sunset photoshoot isn’t just a great time to get incredibly beautiful images in the best light: first and foremost, it’s the only other time in the entire day where the two of you will get a break and a little bit of calm all to yourselves. Enjoy this, throw a wine in your hand and let your photographer take you out for a fun session: this will be where you get some of your favourite wedding portraits. Wedding reception timeline tips: Consider scheduling this in immediately after you have had your main course, and before you make your way around to all of your guests (otherwise there’s a good chance it won’t happen).

See more black and white wedding photos

Inform your wedding planner of this, and make sure it’s all formalised in your wedding reception timeline.

8. Community Toasts (20 minutes)

From Kate and Toms Palm Springs Wedding

The toasts section of the wedding reception timeline is where anything goes. Try to get an idea in advance of who might be giving a speech or toast, so all of the time can be accounted for, and a timing guideline can be presented to each person. This will keep things smooth for all your guests and for the rest of your wedding reception timeline.

9. Family dances (15 minutes)

a photo of a father and daughter dance

This is the part of your wedding reception timeline where some of the most brilliant memories are made, and brilliant photos. Work out ahead of time what the order of things should be, and put every detail and person into your wedding reception timeline.

10. Dance floor open (30 minutes)

Wedding reception timeline tip: after your family dances, make a note of at what point the rest of your community should join you, and make sure it’s formally announced, so that there is no awkward dripping of guests onto the dance-floor wondering if they’re allowed to. Remember the tip up at the top: your guests want solid direction and want to be told what to do. This makes it crystal clear and fun for them, and exactly the same for you.

11. Cake cutting and dessert (30 minutes)

a photo of the wedding couple cutting the cake
See more of this incredible Castlemaine Wedding

There are loud signals of an imminent closing of something (such as the venue lights in a nightclub being unceremoniously turned on at 2:45am), and there are soft signals: the wedding cake cutting and dessert bracket, is a soft signal that things are beginning to hit the final bit of track in your wedding reception timeline. Get the music provider to adjust things to suit, and take a bit of a breather of your own.

HOT TIP: Cut the cake immediately after you walk in, instead. Less formalities later on, = more time your guests can enjoy themselves rather than waiting for the next set of formalities.

12. Dancefloor anarchy (30-45 minutes)

a photo of a couples wedding reception party
See this Castlemaine Wedding Venue

By this point, you’ve probably hit your second wind, and you’ve got a perfect storm of caffiene and sugar coursing through your veins. Wind up the dancing shoes for a final go of it, and get your wedding band to dial things up a notch. When planning your wedding reception timeline, consider workshopping with them also on what the closing track #1 will be, and the closing track #2 (there’s always an encore at every good party).

13. The exit (15 minutes)

wedding reception timeline tips - the sparkler exit
From Kate and Alex’s Burnham Beeches Wedding

The exit itself will only take about 30 seconds, but when planning your wedding reception timeline, consider all of the other people-wrangling that will happen here: pulling any folks from the bathrooms, clearing the bar, and getting a host of gloriously fed and watered folks in a straight line (or whatever exit arrangement you’ve chosen here).

Final wedding reception timeline tips

One of my biggest tips, is to hire a wedding planner. Many folks are a bit unsure about the merits of a wedding planner, so to be totally clear, it’s this: they put out (proverbial) fires, they make you and your guests feel loved and looked after the entire day, but probably most importantly, they don’t leave anyone present feeling like they don’t know what’s going on. A great wedding planner ensures that your timelines are stuck to, and everything goes smoothly and as planned.

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