How to Create Your Wedding Reception Timeline

Find out what's supposed to happen—and when—during your celebration.
kim forrest the knot
Kim Forrest
kim forrest the knot
Kim Forrest
Senior Editor
  • Kim writes and edits articles for The Knot Worldwide, specializing in etiquette and planning advice
  • Kim manages freelance writers for The Knot Worldwide
  • Prior to The Knot Worldwide, Kim was Associate Bridal Editor at Washingtonian magazine and Associate Fashion Editor at Conde Nast’s Brides Local magazines
Updated Mar 24, 2023

Your wedding reception should be one of the most fun and carefree nights of your entire life, but as you've probably already figured out, there's a whole lot of behind-the-scenes planning that goes into it. Creating a wedding reception timeline is a huge part of ensuring your celebration's success, but it can be tricky to know what's supposed to happen when. That's where your wedding planner or venue coordinator comes in.

According to wedding planner Elizabeth Bailey of Elizabeth Bailey Weddings in Baltimore, Maryland, there are several factors that can play a role in the reception timeline, including the number of guests, if you're having a band or a DJ, and the dinner service style (a seated dinner will take less time than a buffet). However, the average wedding reception is usually about five hours, including one hour for cocktails and four hours for dinner and dancing.

If you're looking for a template to help plan your reception order of events, we've got you covered. Here's a handy wedding reception timeline, based on a traditional cocktail hour and a four-hour reception, to give you an hour-by-hour guide to all the post ceremonial events. Note that we've started the cocktail hour at 5:30 p.m for the purposes of this itinerary example., but you can of course start your reception at any time!

In this article:

5:30 p.m. Cocktail Hour

After being pronounced newlyweds, you're the first to leave the wedding ceremony, heading off (with photographer in tow) for pictures together before the partying gets under way. Your guests will head to the reception site for cocktails. Depending on the logistics of the event, your cocktail hour will begin immediately (if the ceremony and reception are held at the same venue), or it might start more than half an hour later (if there's travel involved). Cocktails will kick off your reception and will last for at least an hour. During this time the staff will serve stationary or passed appetizers and drinks, which will get people mingling and in the mood to party.

6:30 p.m. Guests Enter Reception

As the cocktail hour comes to a close, guests will be asked to file into the reception space and find their seats in preparation for the couple's grand entrance.

6:45 p.m. Wedding Party and Couple Entrance

When it comes to your reception entrance, you have a few options. You can have your wedding party enter first—the emcee will announce each wedding party member by name, and they enter the reception individually or in pairs as an upbeat song plays. Your parents can also have their own special introductions and entrances at this time. Then, you and your new spouse will make your big debut as newlyweds as the crowd goes wild. Alternatively, you can skip the wedding party entrance (especially if your wedding party members aren't the "look at me" types), and just do the traditional newlywed grand entrance (or try something a bit more out of the box!).

6:55 p.m. First Dance + Mini Dance Set

In many cases, your first dance will begin as you step out onto the floor and into the spotlight after being announced. Alternately, you can wait until after the first course of the meal is served, but since everyone is already cheering you as you enter the reception, use the applause as encouragement enough to skim away any shyness and step on out. Your DJ or band will then play a couple of favorites so that guests can get some energy out before sitting down for their meal.

7:10 p.m. Guests Sit for Dinner + Welcome Speech

After a couple songs, the emcee will ask everyone to return to their seats. This is a good opportunity to thank everyone en masse for taking part in your wedding. A family member, often a parent, will say a blessing (depending on the families' faiths). Then, since toasting signifies a transition in the course of an event, the parents or father of the bride will give their toast. As part of this speech, the father or parents of the bride will thank guests for attending and invite everyone to enjoy the celebratory meal

7:20 p.m. First Course

If you're hosting a seated dinner, the first course will be served after the initial toast. Guests are already in their seats (and probably pretty hungry!) so it's the perfect time to start enjoying the meal.

7:35 p.m. Maid of Honor and Best Man Speeches

The toasts given by the best man and the maid of honor should occur between courses, to spread out all the high-emotion, much-anticipated moments and keep guests in their seats. Usually, the maid of honor gives the first speech, followed by the best man.

7:55 p.m. Entrées Served

Time to dig into the main course. If you're having a seated meal, the band or DJ will play subdued, conversation-friendly background music as the waitstaff makes the rounds. If you're having a buffet, your coordinator, emcee or bandleader will dictate how the rotation will work by calling each table when it's time to line up for food.

8:15 p.m. Parent Dances

As guests are finishing their meal, the emcee will call the couple and their parents to the dance floor to begin the parent dances. These can include (but are not limited to!) the father-daughter dance and the mother-son dance.

8:25 p.m. Dancing

Once dinner dishes are cleared, and you've had your parent dances, your DJ or band will play a high-energy, crowd-pleasing song to draw everyone to the dance floor. As the guests of honor, you and your new spouse (along with your wedding party) should stay on the dance floor, so people know it's time to start partying. Throughout the dancing, the music may pause for any additional activities you've planned in your wedding reception schedule, but we recommend keeping those breaks to a minimum, if any. If you're doing a bouquet and garter toss, those should occur about 45 minutes into the dance set.

9:45 p.m. Cake Cutting

About an hour or so before the conclusion of the reception, when the party starts getting a little rowdy, your waitstaff should start preparing tables for coffee and dessert. Since the cake cutting generally signals guests that it's okay to leave soon thereafter, don't do it too early or things could start wrapping up before you're ready. Yes, you could bring the festivities to a halt so everyone can watch you and your new spouse cut the cake, or you could keep it low-key so the dancing isn't interrupted. "We typically don't stop the party for cake cutting and use it as a photo opportunity only," says Elizabeth Bailey.

10:50 p.m. Last Dance

Don't just cut the music when it's time for everyone to leave. Schedule a last dance into your wedding reception timeline to signal to guests it's time to go home (or head to the after party!). End your wedding on a high note and choose a dance song that will leave a lasting impression. You'll want everyone to have a chance for one last twirl, so select something fast and festive.

11:00 p.m. Reception Ends + Send-Off

Now it's time to say goodbye. Your coordinator will usher everyone into the foyer or onto the steps outdoors so that as you make your grand exit from the reception, friends and family can blow bubbles, light sparklers, or toss confetti—and cheer for your successful celebration and future together.

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