the blog

How to Organize Your Wedding Reception Timeline

Why It’s Important to Plan Your Wedding Reception Timeline

As a wedding photographer, I get asked this question all the time: How long are wedding receptions? Do you have a wedding reception itinerary we can use as a guideline?! 

& now with this blog post written, I can say HECK YES! You are in the right place, my friend.

how long are weddings

One of my biggest goals as your wedding photographer is making sure you’re living in the moment, not worried about a single darn thing!! The best way to relieve day-of stress is to plan out your wedding day, and not just the ceremony: wedding reception timeline, too. This way you never have to worry about your big day not running smoothly!

With a solid wedding reception timeline, every vendor knows when they need to arrive. You can communicate with your guests so they know when to expect everything. And with a reception itinerary, your photographers and videographers won’t miss a single thing!!

order of dances at wedding

Most importantly, you don’t have to worry about what’s next or where you need to be. The timeline is in place for you to relax and have fun after all the official stuff of the day is over!

Below, I’ve laid out a traditional wedding reception timeline for you. Of course, it’s YOUR day, so don’t follow this just because someone else told you to! Work with your partner, wedding planner, and other vendors to create a personalized timeline that will fit your unique dream day. 

how long are weddings

Elements of a Traditional Wedding Reception Timeline

Cocktail Hour

Cocktail hour typically happens between your ceremony and your reception. If you have one, this is typically when the bar opens up! It’s the perfect time for guests to mingle, relax, + soak in the afternoon. During the cocktail hour, guests can sign your guest book, visit your photobooth, grab a drink, and enjoy a snack (or two, or three)!

Also, keep in mind that the cocktail hour might be longer if you opted out of your first look because you’ll use this time to take photos with your wedding party or family.

how long are weddings

Grand Entrance

At the beginning of your reception, your DJ or MC will announce you for the first time as a married couple! You’ll get allllll the (well-deserved) applause from your family + friends. This is a great transition moment since you have everyone’s attention!

You could head straight to your sweetheart or head table for dinner, or you could also take this chance to thank everyone for coming to your wedding! I’ve also seen some couples take the mic and introduce their wedding party themselves, instead of having their DJ announce them before the couple.

But if you’re not rushing to dinner, this is a really great segue to one of the most romantic moments of the wedding reception…. your first dance. 😉

wedding reception timeline

First Dances 

In my experience, wedding receptions flow really well when you go straight into your first dance after your grand entrance! Eyes are already on you and you’re already on the dance floor! After your first dance, you can do any other special dances you want!

Mother-groom dance and father-bride dances are sweet options too, depending on what you + your spouse want!

how long are weddings


This is pretty much self explanatory! My biggest piece of advice for this part of your reception timeline: schedule time for you + your boo to eat! Give yourself at least 45 minutes to sit down, get some fuel, and take in the day. 

wedding reception timeline


Then comes the time for your loved ones to tell allll the embarrassing stories about you!! Or if they’re nice, they’ll talk about your relationship and everything they love about you. Cheers to you, Babe!

wedding reception timeline

Cake Cutting

The best part of the day! Except for the part where you got married … duhhh. Time to cut your cake and smash it in each other’s faces (or be nice and just calmly feed it to one another)! 😉 I mean … who doesn’t love wedding cake? (Save a piece for me!)

order of dances at wedding

Bouquet + Garter Tosses

Cue Beyonce’s Single Ladies! Let’s find out which one of your friends is getting married next. And make him work to get that garter!

how long are weddings

Wedding Games (e.g. shoe game, newlywed game)

If you’re playing the shoe game or the newlywed game, this is the time for that! Your DJ/MC will help you get your guests’ attention. Time to see how well you reallyyyyyy know each other. 

order of dances at wedding

Sunset Portraits

One of the most magical parts of the night! These are the kind of photos you end up printing out to hang on your wall, because you just can’t get enough of them. 😉 A lot of couples love this time because they get away from all the wedding festivities and just get to be together for a quiet moment. (With me as your third wheel, of course!)

Remember that the timing of sunset portraits could vary depending on the time of the year! In the summer, the sun sets later in the day than in the winter. So def be sure to keep that in mind while creating your wedding reception timeline!

order of dances at wedding

Open Dancing

Now, let’s get this party started! The order of dances at your wedding really depends on you and your partner and what you expect the crowd to enjoy.

If you have a lot of older guests that might plan to leave earlier, I think it’s always nice to include them by doing the dollar-dance or anniversary dance first! Then with everyone already gathered, you can turn the music upppp and get downnnnn.

Start with classic dance songs to get people on the floor and to get the vibes up!! Personally, I don’t think you can go wrong with the Cha-Cha Slide or the Macarena. 😉

order of dances at wedding

Wedding Reception Send-Off or Exit

At the end of your wedding reception timeline, it’s time for your big exit! This is when your loved ones get to cheer you on one last time before you leave. Back in the day, they threw rice at you. But I’ve got some ideas for you below that are a little more Pinterest-worthy, if that’s what you’re going for!

order of dances at wedding

Popular Wedding Reception Sendoff Ideas:

  • Vintage car
  • Limo
  • Sparklers
  • Glow sticks
  • Confetti
  • iPhone flashlights
  • Bird seed

BONUS TIP: Include the send-off time on signage around your wedding reception venue so that your guests know to stick around till the very end!

how long are weddings

Wedding Reception Timeline Examples

Wedding Timeline Example #1: Based On a 5-hour Reception

This is an example for couples wanting a good chunk of time to party with their loved ones!

5:00-6:00 – Cocktail hour

6:05 – Grand entrance

6:10-6:25 – First dances

6:30-7:15 – Dinner

7:00 – Toasts

7:20 – Cake cutting

7:30 – Garter + bouquet tosses

7:40 – Games

8:00 – Sunset portraits

8:25 – 9:45 – Open dancing

10:00 – Sendoff

how long are weddings

Wedding Timeline Example #2: Based On a 3-hour Wedding Reception

Here’s a shorter option if you just wanna be alone with your partner ASAP! This also works if you don’t want quite as many reception activities or if you’ve invited fewer guests.

6:00-6:30 – Cocktail time

6:35 – Grand entrance

6:40-6:55 – First dances

7:00-7:30 – Dinner

7:30 – Toasts

7:45 – Cake cutting

7:55 – Sunset portraits

8:15-9:00 – Open dances

9:00 – Sendoff

order of dances at wedding

As always, talk with your wedding planner/coordinator to figure out a wedding reception itinerary that works best for you guys as a couple! If you ever want a second opinion, consult your photographer or videographer. We stick right by our couples’ sides allllll day … so we know a thing or two!

how long are weddings