The Reception “Flow:” A Simple Timeline for Your Wedding

People dancing at a wedding reception.

Your wedding reception is supposed to be a lot of things: a celebration of love for your partner, a time for your friends and family to express their joy for you, a tasty dinner, a raucous party. But above all, a wedding reception should be organized. If you don’t have things planned out in advance, you’ll never get everything done!

Not sure how you should plan out your big party? We’ve got a sample timeline that will help you move easily from one activity to the next. Take a look below to get a feel for the typical “flow” of a wedding reception. Note: for our purposes, we’ve set our schedule to start at 5 p.m., but feel free to adjust this timeline to suit your own wedding plans.

The Cocktail Hour (5:00)

People at a cocktail hour of a wedding reception enjoying drinks with cherries in them.

Cocktail hour should begin just after you say “I do.” Whether you and your new spouse are scurrying off to take your photos or sticking around to mingle with your guests, the hour immediately following your ceremony should be reserved for cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, and conversation among your guests. This time allows your vendors to finish setting up the reception space, and it also helps your guests transition from the reverent vibe of the ceremony to the relaxed vibe of the reception.

The Grand Entrance and First Dance (6:00)

After everyone has had a chance to mingle, wet their whistles, and find their seat in the reception hall, it’s time for the bridal party’s grand entrance. Usually, the DJ or band will initiate this moment, asking guests to look toward the doors as they announce each bridesmaid and groomsman in turn. Finally, it will be your turn; walk into the hall with the love of your life and present yourselves as a married couple! From here, you should segue straight into your first dance.

Welcome Speeches (6:20)

All eyes will be on the guests of honor (you and your sweetheart) as your first dance wraps up. This is the perfect time to welcome everyone to the party and thank them for coming. If any parents or other family members are planning to give a speech, this is also the time to pass the mic to them (but not to the best man or maid of honor—that time comes later). Then, get settled in at your table because it’s time to chow down!

Dinnertime (6:30)

Dinner is one of the few times during your reception when you don’t have too much to do. If you’re having a seated dinner, your waitstaff will make sure everyone is fed. If you’re dining buffet style, your DJ will have the job of calling each table up to grab their grub. Eventually, you’ll want to make the rounds and say hello to your guests at each table. But first and foremost, make sure you get a bite to eat; it’s been a long day already, and there’s still quite a bit to go!

Bridal Party Toasts (7:30)

A groomsman giving a toast at a wedding with the bride and groom laughing next to him.

Once all your guests have their food and a little time to tuck in, you can start the bridal party speeches. This is a great time to begin these speeches, as they tend to be more humorous and fun—a great way to shift from “dinner” mode to “party” time. Just make sure your besties don’t drag on too long. Five minutes per speech is ideal!

Parent Dances/Party Time (7:40)

If you’re planning on doing father-daughter or mother-son dances, this is the right time to do it. Ask your DJ to follow up the dance with a high-energy song, and then invite your guests to join you and your parents on the dance floor. The next hour or so will be reserved for dancing up a storm, so make sure you have your comfy shoes on!

Cut the Cake (9:00)

You’ll probably work up an appetite with all that dancing, so this is the optimal time to cut your wedding cake and have it served to your guests. The DJ or wedding band will likely keep the music playing throughout this time so that your guests who aren’t interested in dessert can get back to dancing ASAP.

Cut a Rug (9:15)

For the rest of the evening, your guests should be occupied with dancing the night away. Be sure your band keeps the energy high with fun, upbeat music, and leave a few minutes between songs for the bouquet and garter tosses (assuming you’re planning to do them). This is also a good time for you to say hello to guests you may have missed during dinner.

Thank You and Goodnight (11:00)

A bride and groom leaving their wedding and running past a row of small fireworks.

By this time, some of your guests may have already left for the evening. But now it’s time for the rest to head home! Tell the remaining partiers once again how thankful you are that they came to celebrate with you. Then, it’s time for you to either help clean up or head off to the honeymoon suite, smiling to yourself over how smoothly your reception went.

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