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.

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

  1. I’m an Irish bride to be. We are having our ceremony at 3pm (it’s a civil ceremony, it’s more common now than it used to be but I still think most weddings in Ireland have religious ceremonies)the timeline roughly is a break from 3.45-4.45 for photos then the reception starts so speeches, dinner will be at 5.30 and then cut the cake, first dance then dancing all night, like most weddings here our wedding will go on all night into the wee hours, I know we will be in the residents bar at 4am 😉
    Not all but most weddings have a day after party too. They say the average wedding in Ireland costs €25,000 (euro) but we are going to be below the average 🙂 luckily the most common wedding gift to give here is money so we might get a nice honeymoon afterwards 😀

  2. In our case, we started with photos around 1:30pm. Then get to the venue around 5 (which became more like 5:30), make sure it’s set, take a few more photos, greet people, ceremony around 6, then cocktails whenever that finished and food arriving around 7. We had to set out the food still so we ate around 7:30. Had toasts around 8:15, then enjoy. I think we pulled out dessert around 9:30 but honestly most of it just sat there because it wasn’t a production, was just serve yourself, and everyone was stuffed from supper and the candy on the tables. My dude and I prepped to leave around 10:30 or 11, and cleanup commenced so that everyone would be out by 1am. Everything had to be cleaned up and removed that evening so I didn’t want to leave that super duper late on people who would be exhausted. We were paying by the hour after 9pm so it was also to keep costs from getting too nuts.

    To be honest, by 11 I was exhausted. The wedding hadn’t been super long for our guests (only about 5 hours at that point) but my hair dresser started at 10. So I was at 13 hours of GO. I wanted to go home and snuggle with my dude since we had a short drive the next day after a brunch. My friends and I are all likely to have relatively early nights though so it felt more dinner party style which was great.

  3. Another British bride here – glad I’m not the only one who was like, “10pm curfew – WTF?!” Most venues here will have cut off of midnight at the earliest! We’re having our own private venue so we can party til the wee small hours! We’re getting married at the Town Hall at 3pm which is kinda late-ish, but we’re not having a sit down meal so we figured it’d be fine.

  4. Happy to see “buffer” time included! How about doing a First Look? By planning to shoot the majority of your wedding imagery prior to the ceremony, you will be ready and able to party all night the moment you say, “I do!” This is the single-most important thing you can do to de-stress your wedding.

  5. I’m a UK bride too! Of the weddings I’ve been to over the last few years, two finished at midnight, one at 11, and one of the late finishers had an after party back at the hotel. They all started between 12 and 2. But I’m going to one this year that runs 10am to 10pm, which is a pretty early finish.
    Ours is going to be 3pm ceremony, then drinks, then dinner at about 6, then party til midnight… Partly as we wanted to be able to just provide snacks later on rather than two full meals!
    I think as with all things, it’s whatever works best for you. And of course, what you can book vendors/officiants to do!

  6. I’m UK bride based in the USA, and was really surprised to find out the average time for a wedding here is about 6 hours. Ours starts at 6pm and finishes at 11pm, as we’re limited by what time we can get in to the venue and how long its available for.

    I think the shorter time is dictated (at least in New York) by the prohibitive cost of weddings and venues (ours is a flat fee for 5 hours rental, plus extra $ for every hour afterwards) and the fact that you can get married (including proper civil ceremony) in just about all and any venues – many of which have restrictions on noise and gatherings.

    To be honest, I’m really struggling with the time scheduled compared to a UK wedding – although the benefit may be a smaller bar bill 😉

  7. My additional suggestion: Add columns to your timeline, that include names of those responsible for action items, with their contact info. Then you hand out the timeline to all bridal party members, your parents, your planner or coordinator if you have one (we will have day-of coordination help only), as well as all vendors.

    If anyone is MIA, your VIP’s have their number(s) and it’s not your problem. That way, vendors and anyone helping know things like when the bar staff takes their meal break, when the bouquet toss needs to be organized, etc, and can help support things staying on track.

    I’ve been to many a wedding where things were not left out intentionally, yet they never happened; like mom never had the opportunity to make her toast, or the father-daughter dance just never happened because the right person didn’t know to initiate it when the window was there. Knowledge is power – give your support system power.

  8. How about a non-traditional reception timeline? We went to city hall and now are gathering all our friends and family for a garden reception in my father’s backyard. Would love a suggestion on time line here! We are not doing a formal sit down dinner nor having a cake. There will be apps, cocktails, dessert, live music playing in the background, late night snacking plus chance to add your favorite song to the playlist. Not sure about dancing though…need to set up a dance floor!

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