How Long Is a Wedding Reception? An Hourly Breakdown of Your Wedding Night

How to make the most of your reception time, and why keeping the party going isn’t always the best idea.

By The Zola Team

Couple dancing in embrace
Photo by Amy Smith

When it comes to the overall scope of weddings, the wedding reception is what most people tend to think of as the main event. We at Zola believe the most important part of your wedding day is the ceremony. Still, there’s certainly no arguing that the reception is a critical component of your big day.

In terms of preparation, your wedding ceremony should be your main focus, but your wedding reception should be your main focus in terms of planning. Lucky for you, Zola is committed to making your planning process easy, so that you have more time to focus on the essential emotional preparations. In the months leading up to your wedding and the reception, you’re preparing for a life-long commitment, but you’re also planning what will undoubtedly be the greatest celebration that you ever attend.

While we can't tell you how to prepare for the commitment of marriage, we can tell you everything you need to know about your reception. One of the most common questions for couples planning their wedding reception is, “How long is a wedding reception?” As most venues charge by the hour, having insight as to the reception's length is critical for your plans.

Every reception is going to have its own character based on the traditions you choose to include or ignore. However, there is a particular outline that most wedding receptions follow, which will give you a good indication of how long your reception will last. To understand the length of your reception, let's take a look at a quick breakdown of the main events of a standard wedding reception.

The Introductions and First Dance

This part of the reception should only take about 20 to 30 minutes tops. The length of this affair will ultimately depend on how extravagant your introductions are. Obviously, if your wedding party has a choreographed dance routine that they intend on performing, that's going to eat up some time.

While we’re all for the fun and creativity of self-expression, we do want to remind you that the introductions are all about you and your spouse. Be careful that you do not let your bridal party get too carried away. This is your moment, don't be afraid to put your foot down and remind your wedding party of that.

When in doubt, keep it classic—the introduction of you and your spouse is exciting enough on its own. While it may feel like you need to add flare, the simple act of hearing your names announced as a married couple will give you enough adrenaline to last the rest of the night.

How Long Is a Wedding Reception? Photo Credit // Amy Smith

The Dinner Service

If you’re having an evening reception, dinner service is the staple of the event and, as a result, typically takes up the largest block of time. As dinner service will include activities aside from eating, the dinner portion of your reception will last between one-and-a-half to two hours.

While the food is obviously the centerpiece of this reception event, it’s by no means the most important part of the dinner service. One of the most crucial parts of dinner service is the ceremonial pomp and circumstance of toasts and speeches.

Typically, toasts and speeches happen once everyone has been served their food, or, if you opt for a buffet, once everyone has had a chance to help themselves. It’s a tradition that the maid of honor, best man, and bride's father all give toasts (yes, in that order). Let us be very clear, a toast is not a speech. Too many people make the mistake of believing they need to be grandiose and overly eloquent when making a toast to the bride and groom.

All too often, these toasts become a disjointed exhibition in rambling that is all about the person giving the toast. If there’s one thing to remember about these toasts, it’s this—the toast should be directed toward, and centered around, the newlyweds. Additionally, whether you’re from the bride's side of the aisle or the groom's, the reception is a celebration of these two people as a couple. Your welcome toast should reflect that.

No one needs a background about the relationship between the married couple and the person giving the speech. Everyone in attendance knows who you are and why you're up there speaking, so skip the whole "I knew Molly and I would be best friends from the moment I met her in kindergarten." Keep it short and sweet, and always end with a phrase such as, "Raise your glasses and let's toast the health and happiness of the new couple. Cheers."

After the toasts are finished, the floor is usually open for anyone to make a speech or say some kind words. This is an understood condition and, by no means, needs to be advertised. Some additional toasts that can take place include a toast from the groom's parents, a toast from siblings, or even a toast from grandparents.

There’s no right or wrong way for someone to invoke a toast on your behalf. However, for those who will perform their ceremonial duties, make sure to remind them ahead of time what the guidelines are for toasting to the bride and groom.

The Fun Stuff

Once the speeches have been given, and dinner has ended, it's time for dancing. The dance floor will be opened in one of two ways, depending on whether you did your first dance upon arrival. Either the dance floor will be opened after the ceremonial dances or the DJ will simply offer a generalized invitation to everyone to begin dancing.

Most couples choose to have the ceremonial dances like the mother and son dance and the father and daughter dance after dinner is over. Including the formal dances right before the dance floor opens up encourages people to hit the dance floor by seeing that others are dancing.

Believe it or not, most people are shy about being the first to do something, so our advice is to save the ceremonial dances until right before you're ready to open up the dance floor.

Dancing should last anywhere between one-and-a-half and two-and-a-half hours. There will be a natural ebb and flow to the dance floor for the remainder of the evening, but believe us when we tell you that an hour is way too short and anything past two hours starts to get a little tiresome. Better to leave people wanting more than to have your reception fizzle out.

During dancing there will be some interruptions for some of the more fun reception traditions like cake cutting and the bouquet toss. The wedding coordinator will work with your MC or DJ to announce these events, so there’s no need to worry about when they have to happen. Typically, cake cutting happens about an hour into dancing, and the bouquet toss comes shortly after cake.

How Long Is a Wedding Reception? Photo Credit // Amy Smith

The After-Party

Many wedding venues have a curfew of 10 p.m., and some are even earlier, depending on zoning restrictions. For most couples, 10 p.m. is not nearly late enough to stop the party. Thus, the inclusion of an after-party has become a widely endorsed practice within the greater wedding community.

If you do plan on having an after-party, actually plan to have one. Don't just show up to a nearby bar or club with the expectation that they will be accommodating. Call around and get a feel for who will be the most welcoming of your continued wedding celebration. Some bars may even offer you and your guests discounts on drinks or food.

Even if you do plan on having an after-party, don't stay out too late. You only get one wedding night, and you’ll want to have some energy to spend time with your new spouse. Take a page out of Cinderella's book and head home once the clock strikes 12 a.m. You’re not going to miss anything amazing by leaving at midnight; in fact, you run the risk of missing something amazing if you don't.

You more than likely did a grand exit when leaving your reception, so an Irish goodbye will do just fine for the after-party. For those unfamiliar with this practice, that's when you simply leave without saying goodbye to anyone. Believe us when we say no one will be mad at you for exiting quietly. At this point in the evening, many people will not remember the goodbye you give them anyway.

The End of the Evening

When all is said and done, your wedding reception will likely be between five and seven hours. Even on the short side of things, a reception should never be shorter than four hours, unless there is a secondary location that everyone has been made aware of.

Traditionally, five hours is a standard amount of time for a reception. Many couples add an additional hour on the front end of the reception for the purpose of a cocktail hour, but this extra hour is not considered part of the reception as a whole. There are many fun wedding cocktail hour ideas, but it shouldn’t be the main event on your big day.

Should you feel like allowing the party to continue past the originally agreed upon end time, there may be an option to purchase an extra hour on the day-of. This option is usually only available when a venue doesn't have a hard curfew and if the option to invoke the choice has been agreed upon ahead of time.

While five or six hours may feel like a lot of time, your wedding reception will fly by. There’s a lot to do in such a small window of time, but rest assured that the five to six hour window for a reception is a perfect fit.

Your wedding day is going to be one of the best days of your life, and planning it should be a fun experience. Details like dates and times can all get a bit overwhelming, but Zola is here to help you plan your big day.