How to make a “less worry/more party” wedding day timeline

Guest post by Laura from Rebel Belle

Laura Guerrie is a bad-ass wedding planner, former Offbeat Bride, and reality show dodger. She already gave you vendor tipping advice, now she's here to help you with your schedule.

photo by Vito Kwan at Jasmine Photography

Creating a wedding day timeline is a great way to make sure your event runs smoothly. Sometimes, however, weddings have a mind of their own and don't particularly enjoy being held to a precise schedule. Below are a few tips and tricks to help create a realistic timeline that leads to less worry and more party.

Let's start with the basics. For some reason I have yet to figure out, a vast majority of weddings tend to have a natural six hour arc that goes something like this:

Basic schedule overview

  • 4:00 Ceremony
  • 4:30 – 5:30 Cocktail Hour
  • 5:30 – 7:00 Dinner
  • 7:00 – 10:00 Party

I'm always a bit amazed that no matter how unique your wedding venue is, or how fantastic of a band/DJ/fire juggler you've booked, the natural end always seems to come right at about that six hour mark. Therefore, I base my timelines accordingly, knowing that I can always build in a little wiggle room one way or the other for special circumstances.

Once you have the nuts and bolts of your timing in place, you'll want to fill in the special details which I call “bells and whistles.” In the realm of offbeat weddings, these details can be absolutely anything. (“The electric jellyfish enter when, exactly?” is one of the more famous questions I've asked when building a timeline.)

However, for the purposes of this discussion and in an effort to keep it simple, I'm going to use traditional items here such as: grand entrance, toasts, first dance, etc. Generally, anything that would be considered a special moment (e.g. “I sure hope my photographer gets a shot of this!”) should be noted on the timeline.

Some of these items have clear points where they would likely happen, such as making your grand entrance at the very beginning of the reception. Others have multiple options where you might need to give a little thought to when you would like to do certain things.

A few suggestions:

First Dance: Either just after the grand entrance, or immediately after dinner to kick off dancing.

Toasts: Often placed just prior to the start of dinner, which is fine if there are two, maybe three speeches. But for more than a few toasters (ha, I said toasters!) you may want to consider moving some (or all) of them towards the end of the meal. Guests will be better engaged during the toasts if they have full bellies.

Cake Cutting: Personally, I like to hold cake cutting until about 45 minutes or so after dinner, especially if you paid good money for some gorgeous confection. Enjoy the display a bit longer! However, it's not a crime to cut and serve your cake right on the heels of dinner if you prefer to have dessert right away.

After you take your bells and whistles and plug them into your timeline, it'll start to look something like this:

Detailed wedding schedule

  • 4:00 Ceremony
  • 4:30 – 5:30 Cocktail Hour
  • 5:30 Grand Entrance to First Dance
  • 5:45 Toasts
  • 6:00 – 7:30 Dinner
  • 7:30 First Dance, followed by Father/Daughter Dance
  • 7:45 Open Dancing begins
  • 8:30 Cake Cutting
  • 9:30 Bouquet Toss
  • 9:55 Last Song
  • 10:00 End

This is the type of timeline vendors such as photographers, videographers, DJs, and caterers want to see. Concise and clean with the specific key points of the wedding reception clearly noted. You may also find it helpful to create a second, more detailed timeline for the person coordinating your event. This would include vendor arrival times as well as what time the couple, the bridal party and VIP family members are expected on site, along with some notes about your specific set up instructions.

Ready for the secret ingredient of timelines?

Two words: Buffer. Time. The key to running a smooth event is building pockets of buffer time discreetly into to the timeline.

If you look at the example above, there are several areas where I snuck in those little pockets. Most of my clients' ceremonies are only 15-20 minutes long, but I always include 30 minutes for ceremony so that a start time delay doesn't impact the rest of the reception. (And if you're on time, you'll just have a little extra cocktail hour time which is not a terrible thing.) The grand entrance to first dance will probably take five minutes total, but I rounded up.

Always. Round. Up. It's very easy to bump up the timing of an event (and just have more time to party in the end), but it's really difficult to stop a spectacular domino effect once it's begun.

My final tip:

Remember, your wedding timeline is a guideline and nothing is set in stone. Short of making sure your food gets served while it's hot and fresh, it's always best to follow the timeline as feels appropriate in the moment. A little flexibility goes a long way and is ultimately the key to enjoying a wedding day that feels natural, comfortable and just plain fun.

Other posts about wedding scheduling:

Comments on How to make a “less worry/more party” wedding day timeline

  1. This reminds me of a bride and groom at the venue where I used to waitress.

    The bride was an event planner by profession and so she’d given the catering staff what was labelled the “Operations Manual”. The schedule started at 8am with “Bride gets up” shortly followed by “8.03, Dad uses toilet” and other such bizarre items. We were a little disappointed we didn’t have headsets like Monica in Friends….

    Needless to say, the whole wedding was 90 minutes behind schedule by the time the food was served (luckily someone phoned ahead to tell us this so the food was both hot and fresh)

    Moral of the story? Like in the article: Be flexible!

  2. I would love to see some tips like this but with weddings that don’t follow this natural progression. My wedding will be at a resort in Mexico and all it will be is ceremony at 2pm, and then dinner around 6 so I’m not really sure what to do with the four hours in between. There won’t be a typical eat then dance all night reception but we all might see a show or hang out at the bar after dinner. Any suggestions for a timeline would be great!

    • As a guest, I would love to go hang out by the pool, chat with family and friends I haven’t seen for ages or take a nap. I think people will really enjoy the chance to relax and take it easy in Mexico!

    • I would let your guests know that there’ll be three and a half hours in which they’re free to do what they like, and then provide a list of things they might want to do (including go swimming and napping as sodalimebitters suggests!). So your timeline might say:

      2:00 Ceremony
      2:30 Free time! We suggest the following activities: (list them, including show time and place if you’re going out to a show)
      6:00 Dinner

    • When I was really little, I was in a wedding that felt like that and it’s fairly common in small towns with weekend weddings. Usually guests just know that there is a break between wedding and reception. As long as they know where they need to be when, it’s free time to relax, enjoy, etc. As for the bride and groom (and wedding party), it can be time for pictures, time to chill out in private, maybe even a post-wedding consummation. 😉

    • We had originally wanted a sunrise ceremony in HI with closest family, but wanted the party to last all day.

      We had a schedule that included: Wake up, get married. Have breakfast/brunch with family. Nap time. Meet on beach for bonfire and pig roast. Party hard.

      Too bad grandparents can’t fly – we’re getting married in Michigan in October.

  3. Uh, you’re meant to have a schedule? We told guests to be at the venue at 4pm, with a mind that we’d probs get married around 5pm, and dinner at 7pm, and like.. they can eat and drink to their heart’s content between those times, and whatever.

    Am I super disorganised, or just super casual? o_O

    • As with all things posted on Offbeat Bride, there’s no way I’d expect this advice to be relevant to every reader. If your wedding is super casual, then who needs a schedule? 🙂

      • Hah yes, you’re right! I figure if I don’t have a schedule set out, with a strict idea of when things happen, I’m probably less likely to get freaked out if something doesn’t happen at that time 🙂

  4. We’re planning our own ceremony and reception at a venue we’ve hired. The venue has a curfew of 10pm (doors locked and alarmed, otherwise security gets called and we cop the bill), so planning has been essential. We’ve rounded up to the nearest 5 minutes, and we’ve included contingency time up our sleaves as well. For us its about making sure our key vendors (celebrant, caterer, photographer) all know what’s supposed to happen when. We’re taking the approach of over planning in the lead up, and then on the day we’ll just roll with it knowing we’ve got some time up our sleave.

  5. One thing I should probably clarify – a wedding schedule or timeline like this is really designed for the vendors, not the guests. If you’ve hired a professional photographer or DJ, they are very likely to touch base with you prior to the wedding to cover these types of timing questions so that on the wedding day they can be in position with music cued and batteries charged, ready to go when you are.

    As a coordinator, it’s part of my job to communicate key timing to the vendors. But if the timeline says it’s time for cake cutting at a moment when you’re bustin’ a move on the dance floor, then we hold off a bit. Again, nothing set in stone. It just helps whoever is coordinating and/or the key vendors if they have an idea of what to expect.

    So for those with a large time gap in between the ceremony and reception, or for those with a super laid-back party – you could just note whatever timing is applicable to you. My husband and I actually had a very small, simple karaoke bar wedding and our “timeline” consisted of ceremony time, a few specific singer/song cues, pizza & cupcake time and last call. Nothing fancy, nothing complicated. A good rule of thumb is: If someone needs to start it, end it, serve it, play it or photograph it – noting the general timing you have in mind simply helps them do it.

  6. Do American weddings usually only last 6 hours? I had no idea! It seems so short. We’ll be having the ceremony at 2, dinner at 5 and party til 2am, though standard in the UK is party til midnight. Why are US weddings so short?

    • This is funny! I was just thinking the opposite (and I’m American). Six hours? No way! I’m an introvert (and my partner much more so) and no way is our wedding going to take six hours! Then again we’re also not partiers so never in a million years would it occur to me to party until 2am. Wow!

      I look forward to seeing someone else’s response. This is curious why the U.S. and the UK are so different in this regard.

    • I feel like, at all the weddings I’ve been to, there’s a point where the majority of the party heads home at a reasonable hour to get some sleep, and then a core stays behind to dance and find/make the after party.

    • This might have something to do with the venues and neighborhood noise restrictions. I totally wanted to party well into the night and it was just about impossible to find a venue that didn’t have a 10pm cut off. When pressed as to why, it was usually because of city-wide noise ordinances. They’d get fined if they still had a rager going on past 10pm.

      • Also… there is the tradition of the couple having a send-off. It’s becoming less common I think, but if you want to do a grand exit, you want to do it before your guests are ready to go home or before they are all 6 sheets to the wind. But after the couple is gone, that can signal that it’s time to clean up and head out. Sometimes there will be an after party at another location.

    • I’m with you, Loubelou. When we were planning our backyard wedding for last October (which we had to postpone for a bunch of reasons), it was a weekend event, because no way Jose were we going to invite 30+ people from out of state to party with us for a mere 6 hours. We even let our neighbors know (and invited them!) so they wouldn’t be blindsided by the noise. Even if it hadn’t been a weekend wedding, I still can’t imagine a wedding that doesn’t carry on. But, alas, Americans are often obsessed with schedules and punctuality and rigidity.

  7. I was also really surprised to hear American weddings last only six hours. I’m also from the UK (west coast of Scotland) and I’m in very early stages of planning but expect to put on a 12 hour plus event – around midday till beyond midnight. I should add that this isn’t going to be some insanely lavish wedding, it’s just that weddings that last all day are pretty normal here.

    I can think of two main differences. First is the tradition here of the confusingly named ‘wedding breakfast’ which is actually lunch. Some folk here have dinner as the main meal but I think a big afternoon meal is more common. So with the ceremony before this you can imagine how the day ends up starting quite early.

    Second thing – I think anyway – is the British drinking culture. It’s totally acceptable for guests to stay late and drink rather a lot! Hanging out getting a little tipsy can also fill in those gaps in your schedule when nothing weddingy is happening. Other than that I’m finding it hard to explain such an extreme difference, especially as both countries share most traditions.

  8. another British bride here – if we tried to kick our guests out at 10pm there’d be an outcry! and I’ve never been to a ceremony as late as 4pm, a 2pm ceremony is much more common or even earlier. Funny how different the tradition is.

  9. A Dutch bride-to-be here: In the Netherlands weddings start around lunch time when photographs of the couple are taken after the ceremony, or in the afternoon when photographs of the couple are taken before the ceremony. When a couple has two ceremonies, the wedding starts around 10 or 11 in the morning. The wedding starts at the ceremony, then a champagne and cake moment, following some or all photographs, the second ceremony (if they get married in a church as well), the dinner and then the party (usually from 8 until 12 or 1 in the night).
    In the Netherlands you can not get married for law and church at the same time, therefore a lot of religious couples have two ceremonies. The curch ceremony can be visited by non-invited people as well. If a couple has two ceremonies, the order of everything before dinner can differ from the program I stated here.
    A big difference from English/American weddings I have seen (on tv), is that ceremony and dinner usually are spend with close family and friends only (e.g. 50 persons) and more people are invited for the party (e.g. 250 persons)
    Some (especially elderly) couples, don’t have a party in the evening, instead they have a sit-down reception of 2 or three hours between the ceremony and dinner. This reception is for a larger group (a few hundred), who leave before dinner is served.

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