Unless you decide to elope, your wedding will have two parts. The first is the ceremony, where you and your partner exchange I dos. And the second is a reception, where you celebrate those I dos with friends and family. While both of those events are part of the overall wedding planning, much of your time and energy is spent on the wedding reception.
Of course, if you want a long and elaborate ceremony, you might focus less on the wedding reception. But for the most part, the wedding ceremony is a joint effort between the happy couple and the officiant. Unless you have specific requests or activities, your officiant will take the lead on the ceremony itself. After all, they’ve done this more than you have!
Meanwhile, you’ll be busy picking flowers (which are used throughout the day), choosing centerpieces, booking a DJ, and deciding on food. And all of those details directly affect your reception! In the midst of all this wedding planning, you’re probably asking yourself, “What activities should I plan for the reception? And will there be enough time?” And we’re here to answer those questions for you—just keep reading!
Most weddings don’t last more than six hours. That includes time for the ceremony, reception, photos, and any special activities. Usually, the ceremony lasts about an hour, and the remaining 4 to 5 hours are saved for the reception. As you plan how much time to spend on each element, don’t forget to factor in your location.
Bonus Tip: If you want a longer reception, plan a shorter ceremony.
For example, if you’re hosting the ceremony and reception in the same venue, every minute counts towards the whole event. On the other hand, if guests have to travel for your wedding reception, that affects your timeline! You might not shorten the ceremony to accommodate the drive, but guests will certainly have less time to celebrate at the wedding reception.
Wedding Reception Components
Initially, five hours might seem like a lot of time to fill—especially when guests just spent an hour watching the ceremony! However, when you consider all the components of a reception, you and your guests only have about 3 to 3 1/2 hours of party time. Below are some of the traditional elements of a wedding reception:
- Cocktail Hour AKA Picture Time (1 hour)
Immediately following the ceremony, most couples host a cocktail hour for guests to sip drinks and snack on hors d’veouvres. During this time, the entire wedding party is taking photos.
- Dances and Speeches (30-45 minutes)
Throughout the reception, there will be a few speeches—usually by the best man, maid of honor, and/or parents of the couple. There are also dances between the couple, and with their parents. No single speech or dance takes a long time, but all together, it adds up.
- Dinner and Dessert (1 hour)
Typically, no one is on the dance floor during the meal—they’d rather be eating! Whether you offer a plated or buffet meal, it takes time for everyone to get their food and finish the meal. Then, later on in the reception, the cake is cut and dessert is served—also another time when the dance floor is less active.
Already, you’ve spent almost three hours of your ceremony. Those five hours don’t seem too long now! Of course, you can skip some—or all!—of these activities to save on time (or just because you don’t want to). But guests will still socialize in between the dances and speeches, and at their tables.
Don’t Want the Reception to End?
Of course, once the party starts, sometimes you don’t want it to stop. And just because you need to leave the venue doesn’t mean you have to end the celebration. You have lots of options for a wedding after-party. For example, you can order a rideshare for you and your wedding party to a nearby bar. Or, you can invite guests to the venue restaurant or bar, if applicable. You can even crash someone’s hotel room—with their permission, of course! Just don’t bring the party to your own suite. You’ve had a long day, and will want the opportunity to sneak away and sleep if you need to.
Before you start planning your timeline in detail, make sure you’ve booked your venue and that you know their expectations. Read the contract carefully, to see if there are any cut-off times for music. While not every venue has that rule, the ones that do usually prohibit music after 10 p.m. or later.
Bonus Tip: Ask the DJ to announce the last song, and pick a dance-worthy tune that sends everyone off on a high note.
And if you have to clean up any of your things (like presents!), give yourself about half an hour to do so. Usually, the venue will hire a clean-up crew—but you’ll still have to make sure all people and personal belongings are clear.
Unfortunately, your wedding reception can’t go all night long. At least not at your wedding venue! You will, however, have plenty of time to cross off all your wedding traditions and tear up the dance floor with friends and family. And, if you’re not ready for the night to end, take it somewhere local, or see if a member of your wedding party will offer their hotel room for a few hours.
How long was the last wedding you went to? Did the couple have a lot of activities during the reception?