Image by Jami Laree.

You’re ready to tie the knot—congratulations! Once you’ve said “I do’s” it’s time to kick off your marriage with a reception that feels authentically you, surrounded by the most cherished people in your life. Every couple is different, and every reception should be too. We’ve got the timeline covered so you can focus less on logistics and more on the fun-filled details that will celebrate your unique love. 

There are many elements included in a wedding reception and without a carefully crafted reception timeline, planning can quickly feel overwhelming. To take the stress out of your wedding planning, we’ve crafted the perfect wedding reception timeline to help you visualize the overall flow of the celebration. Making for a smooth planning process and allowing you to be present on your big day—soaking up the soon-to-be memories.

Image by Epic Love Story. See more of this real wedding here.

Cocktail Hour And Wedding Portraits

  • Cocktail hour can last anywhere from 1-2 hours depending on how long you’ve rented your venue for and what your bartender contracts state.

The cocktail hour is typically the start of most wedding receptions and typically begins immediately after the ceremony. Not only is the cocktail hour the best transition from ceremony to celebration, it also serves as passing time for guests while you’re away capturing photos with your wedding photographer. Despite the name, the cocktail “hour” can actually last as long as you want. We do recommend it’s at least an hour to give all your guests plenty of time to settle in and prepare for your big arrival. Be mindful of how long your bartenders are booked in contracts to make sure they don’t start packing up early.

From properly stocking your reception bar to selecting the overall style—there are endless tasks that go into bringing to life a cozy wedding reception, bar included. To kickstart your cocktail hour planning, check out the ultimate guide to your wedding reception bar

Couples Entrance and First Dances 

  • The couple’s entrance and the first dance are typically short and sweet. They can last anywhere from 15-30 minutes depending on a few key factors: will introductions include your wedding party and how long your first dance song snippet will be.

Once memories have been expertly captured and cocktail hour is coming to an end, it’s time to make your grand entrance! Whether it’s just you and your partner or the whole wedding party, the reception entrance is a great way to add a unique, fun, and personalized touch to your big day.

After your grand entrance, slip on your dancing shoes—it’s time for your first dance. Once you step on the dance floor, take a minute to soak in the applause while your DJ or wedding band transitions to your song. Then enjoy every second of that first dance as a married couple. Your entrance and first dance should last about 10 minutes while your guests are finding their dinner seats—if they have them—and your cocktail hour is coming to a close.

Still looking for that perfect first dance song? Check out our list of first dance songs that are sure to set the mood. 

Image by Katie Ruther Photography. See more of this real wedding here.

Welcome Toasts 

  • Welcome toasts should be short, sweet, and from the heart. Take a quick 10-15 minutes to gather your wedding guests and say a few words of appreciation.

Before dinner kicks off, take a moment to stand together and thank everyone for attending. Your wedding DJ will hand you a microphone so you don’t need to shout. Your speech should take less than 10 minutes. Keep in mind, your the welcome toast should be short and sweet. The longer, more emotional toasts will come later. Depending on your faith, you or a family member can then say bless the meal. 

Dinner And Speeches 

  • This portion is also dependent on the length of the reception and meal style you have chosen, but typically dinner and speeches will take up an hour to an hour and a half.

Now it’s time to bring in the food. From formal plated meals to food trucks, there are endless dinner catering options. If you’ve decided on a seated dinner, your servers should be waiting with plates during the welcome toast so that they can begin serving immediately. If you’re having a buffet, your DJ will be in charge of controlling the flow of traffic by announcing when it’s time for each table to make their way to the food area. During dinner, have your DJ or wedding band play simple background music that fits your vibe but doesn’t take away your guests’ ability to have conversations.



Between courses—or about 20 minutes into dinner if you’re having a buffet—it’s time to grab your tissues and start speeches. It’s normal to have around three people make speeches. But  it’s your big day. Whether you opt to have best friends, close relatives, or even your officiant make a speech, be sure you ask them ahead of time so they can prepare. When you do, you should also give them a time limit so they don’t run too long. . We recommend they take place back-to-back so you only have to get the guests’ attention once. 

If your family or friends need some tips for writing their speeches, we’ve got a guide to wedding speeches and toasts you should pass along. 

Because meal sizes and styles can vary so much, the amount of time you dedicate to this will be unique. As a general rule, all of the speeches shouldn’t last longer than 20 minutes and a seated dinner should be about one hour.

Parent Dances 

  • If you’ve decided to stick with the memorable parent dance tradition, allocate 30 minutes to honor the cherished people in your life.

As dinner is finishing up, it’s time to transition into the dancing phase of the evening—starting with the father-daughter or mother-son dance. Typically, the father-daughter dance happens first, but you can do these dances in either order that you prefer or even at the same time.

If you’re looking for song ideas, we’ve got our favorite father-daughter dance songs and mother-son dance songs that won’t leave a dry eye in the house.


  • After—unusually emotional parent dances—it’s time to open the dance floor. Dancing will now fill up the majority of your reception timeline. A good rule of thumb is to leave 1-2 hours for dancing and mingling.

With all your guests focused on the dance floor for the parent dances, have your DJ transition immediately into more upbeat tunes. You and your new spouse should be the first ones back on the dance floor to get the party started. Your guests will follow your lead, especially if you’re using the music on this wedding reception playlist. This would also be the time to fit in any other traditions or games you want to include. Dancing will typically last the rest of the night, with about an hour to spare for the last two activities.

Image by Terralogical. See more of this real wedding here.

Cake Cutting 

  • Dessert is typically last and is a good way to gather guests and prepared them for the grand exit. We recommend leaving 30 minutes to one hour for your guests to enjoy dessert and allow for final goodbyes.

Now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for—dessert! Maybe you’re having a large, tiered, swoon-worthy wedding cake or maybe you want to ditch tradition and have a donut wall. Dessert is typically a sign that the wedding reception is almost over, so we recommend putting it no more than one hour before your grand exit. Most guests will stay until after the cake is cut, so this is a good time marker to avoid people leaving too early. 

Grand Exit 

  • And you’re off. The grand exit is short, sweet, and epic. 15-30 minutes should be more than enough time to gather guests and exit the venue.

While you two are saying your final farewells, your planner should be getting your guests in place for your grand exit. If you’re not into the idea of a grand exit, check out our other ideas for memorable ways to end your reception. From sparklers to driving off on a brand new motorcycle—we’ve seen it all. Whatever you choose, your exit is sure to be grand and the perfect way to end an epic wedding reception. 

Image by Karra Leigh Photo. See more of this real wedding here.

A Reminder About Your Wedding Reception Timeline

Your wedding reception should be a reflection of you, your partner, and your love. If you don’t want to include any of the elements we’ve listed—don’t. Whether you host your reception in your favorite restaurant or continue the party in your unique wedding venue, this guide should be taken as a guide. If your timeline runs over, your expert wedding planner can always help you get back on track. So relax, and enjoy the best party you’ll ever throw. You’ve earned it.

From decor to the timeline—there’s a lot that goes into the planning of a reception. We’ve taken care of the logistics so you can focus on the fun elements like nailing your reception design. Check out these tips for beautifully decorating your reception without having to break the bank to get started. 

Image by Peter Herman Photography.

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