Putting Together a Timeline

You've got your venue, your photographer, your DJ, your dress, and your caterer.  You've sent out invitations and gotten most of your guest list finalized (as a side note-- what's up with people not RSVPing?  How rude!).  It would have been nice to have a wedding planner, but the budget wouldn't allow it.  Or maybe you've hired a day-of coordinator (very good move, by the way), but she won't be on the scene until a week or so before the wedding.

In the mean time, your DJ and caterer have asked for a timeline, and you don't really know where to start.  

One of our recent brides planning her perfect day

One of our recent brides planning her perfect day

When do we do our first dance?  How long does dinner last?  Are people going to dance for an hour or two hours or three hours, or twenty minutes??  We have the venue until 10:00-- is that enough time to fit everything in?  Or too much time???  Ack!

Fear not, young bride.  Putting a wedding day timeline together can be daunting at first, but it's really not a big deal once you learn a few guidelines.  Let's jump right in...

The Basics

Unless you're going pretty far out of the box, there are some things that almost every wedding is going to have.  They're listed below, some with rough time estimates.  Now, hold on!  Don't freak out if it doesn't follow what you already had in mind.  There's no order set in stone, and when it comes down to it, you can really do whatever you want.  This is just the order I prefer them in, and it's pretty typical.  But we often work with vendors who feel differently, so who knows.  One final note before you look: the less common items are in italics.  Okay, now have at it...

  • Guests arrive; pre-ceremony music begins (~15-30 min before ceremony)
  • Ceremony (~20-30 minutes)
  • Cocktail hour (~1 hr)
  • Reception begins: i.e., guests invited into reception area
  • Grand entrance
  • First dance
  • Welcome speech
  • Dinner
  • Toasts (~45 min after dinner begins)
  • Father/Bride dance
  • Mother/Groom dance
  • Money dance
  • Anniversary dance
  • Open dancing (~20-40 min)
  • Bouquet/Garter toss
  • Cake cutting
  • More open dancing
  • (Grand exit-- e.g., sparkler send-off, bubbles, glow sticks, etc.)

I suggest you start with that and then add, subtract and modify things as necessary.  Remember, none of those things is gospel, and some are more flexible than others.  For example, the first dance could just as easily go after dinner-- and many people prefer it that way-- but I just have a personal preference for doing it right after the grand entrance, which I'll discuss in a minute.

Spacing things out

So the next question is, how much time to allow for each thing, and how much time to allow


things?  There are no hard and fast rules to this either, so your most important resource is to trust your judgement.  Here are a few rules of thumb, though:

  • Dinner service will take more time than you think.  If it's a buffet, the first people to get food may even be finishing while the last people are taking their first bites.  But table service isn't always much better-- the more guests you have, the longer it takes the wait staff to serve, take away, and serve the next course.  So allow for at least 45 minutes.
  • Everything else will take less time than you think.  Your first dance won't take five minutes (the full song is only three and a half minutes long, after all!), toasts won't take forty-five minutes (unless you have a long-winded best man, which is not unheard of), and no one is likely to pay much attention to the cake cutting for more than five minutes or so.  And the grand entrance is over before you know it!  Don't believe me?  Right now, put on the song you're thinking of for your grand entrance, have your future hubby do the announcement of the bridal party, and you mime everyone coming in the room-- if you make it past two minutes, I'll give you a dollar. ;)
  • People will want to talk to you.  You're sort of a big deal on your wedding day, so everyone will want a picture and a few minutes of conversation with the rock stars of the evening.  That's not a bad thing, but do the math and all those minutes start to add up.  So it's a good idea to allow some time for this, either going table to table during dinner or scheduling something like an anniversary dance, thereby working the shmoozing into your timeline.
  • The last two hours are flexible. This is your time either to play catch-up or to stretch-out, as necessary.  But after the dinner and toasts, it's more important to let people have fun.  So schedule the bouquet/garter/cake cutting tentatively on the timeline, and let your DJ actually announce them when it feels right, like when the dancefloor slows down.  Just make sure it's before your photographer leaves for the night.

Wrapping Up

If you made it to the end of this 800+ word blog, you'll see we've attached a sample timeline.  So download it, copy it, modify it, make it your own.  If you have any questions/concerns/comments/complaints, just contact us, and we'll make all of your wildest dreams come true.