You just got engaged to the love of your life and your entire network of family and friends starts asking for wedding details. You instantly feel overwhelmed and don't know where to even start with this process. You've attended a few weddings as a guest, but you spent the whole day (drinking) celebrating the newlyweds and their special day. The only details you remember from each wedding are the creative appetizers, and how poppin' the dance floor got that night.
With that being your only 'wedding' experience, how on earth are you supposed to plan your wedding? There are endless DIY blog posts to read and Pinterest boards to create to help bring the 'dream style' of your dream wedding to life - but what about the actual schedule of the day? How long does it take? What time should dinner start? How long does my photographer need for family photos? What time is the send off?
Having a detailed wedding schedule (with wiggle room) is the most important thing you can do to minimize stress, eliminate confusion and keep everybody on the same page. Breaking down each moment will help keep everything in check - from names and start time of your hair and makeup team to who is in charge of what during the final cleanup after the final send off - so that you don't have any unknowns on your wedding day.
Here are some tips and ideas to consider when creating your timeline for a traditional 8 hour wedding with a big bridal party and lots of guests.
#1 Work backwards
You reserved your wedding venue, and the staff suggested a ceremony start time. Let's say its 4:30pm. Keep in mind that if you are having a dinner reception, you want to make sure you have enough time between your ceremony and dinner for some photos! Depending on the time of the year, and if you're at an outside venue - make sure there is enough sunlight if you're wanting photos post ceremony! You should use your designated ceremony time as the main stepping stone for your entire day.
Always give yourself a buffer. People will be late. Things take longer than expected. Always - just count on it.
You'll need to schedule: getting ready hair and makeup for the ladies, a first look (your choice), family photos, bride/groom photos, bridal party photos, cocktail hour, dinner start time all around the ceremony start time. Familiarize yourself with how long you expect each thing to take and start by creating a rough draft. If you're using a wedding coordinator, you can collaborate on this part or ask your photographer what has worked well for them! Here are some general timelines to get you started!
#2 use timeline blocks
Getting ready: 3+ hours
The ladies typically need a lot longer than the dudes to get ready due to hair and makeup schedules. Your starting time will depend on how many people are getting hair and makeup professionally done. A larger group means you'll want to block off more time to prep for the day. The bride should always go last so curls don't have the chance to fall out. Get your bridal party a cute robe, turn up the music, and cue the mimosas. Send a bridesmaid over to the guys 1 hour before the next event so they know when they should start getting ready!
(Make sure you leave at least 20 minutes for the bride to put on her dress and accessorize. The last thing she wants to feel is rushed through this special moment)
First look: 45 minutes
Get the groom set up for the first look away from any crowds. This should be a moment between only the bride/groom (& photographer). People will ask to watch - say no. This is one of the only moments for the rest of the day that you'll have some alone time with your future spouse. Keep is special and intimate! Your photographer will start the rest of your bride/groom photos after your first.!
Bridal Party: 45 minutes
If everything is 100% on schedule, this will be too much time for your photographer. However, if you're running behind - this is a good time to catch up! Make sure your bridal party knows to be 100% dressed (yes, shoes on) and ready to meet you in your designated location.
Family Photos: 30 minutes
Depending on the size of your family (& if they are responsible enough to arrive on time) communicate the time they need to be at the venue for family photos. It is best if this can be done before the ceremony, but if that's not feasible - inform them that it will happen directly after the ceremony. They need to stay close to the ceremony site and not go to cocktail hour until after photos are complete.
Plan to be completely done with all photos at least 30 minutes before the ceremony is supposed to start. This is a good time for the bride/groom to freshen up and relax while being out of sight while guests arrive.
Ceremony: 30ish minutes
Every ceremony is different, and this time block will vary most among couples. A secular wedding ceremony can take 15 minutes while a religious ceremony can take around an hour.
Cocktail Hour: 45-60 minutes
If you are doing family photos directly after the ceremony, remind the officiant to make an announcement that family should stick around while all other guests are dismissed to the cocktail hour. If family photos are already finished, everybody except the bride/groom will be dismissed to the cocktail hour. Guests will fill their time with music, conversation, light snacks and drinks if provided. The bride and groom will take a few more 'just married' photos before returning to the cocktail hour to join their guests. Make sure all vendors are on the same page for this one so that everybody is ready to go as soon as the ceremony concludes.
Reception Begins, grand entrance: 15 minutes
The bridal party enters the reception first, followed by the newlyweds. This can transition directly into the first dance as a married couple. The host traditionally gives a welcome speech before dinner begins. Parents typically speak during this time, or you can thank your guests for attending!
Dinner begins: 45 minutes
This length of time can vary depending on how many guests are at the wedding. If it is a small group, doing a buffet style dinner, you may need less time. If your group is large, or doing a more formal dinner where each guest is served, you will likely need more time.
Toasts: 20 minutes
Even if guests aren't 100% finished with dinner, you can start the toasts! It is better to start them early than having guests sitting at an empty table wondering what is coming next. If there are parent dances, you can do them now followed by the cake cutting.
Send off: 15 minutes
Make sure to let your DJ know what time to start the 'last song' of the night. Guests should then proceed outside to line up for the send off. If you're doing sparklers, bubbles, dried lavender, or anything else you came up with make sure you have somebody in charge of directing guests where they need to be and what they should be doing. Your getaway car should be in place and ready to go with your bags packed inside. The DJ should play one more song for the newlyweds as a 'last dance' while everybody else is outside. This is a special moment to conclude the day before leaving the ceremony, and you can get some beautiful intimate photos of just the two of you on the dance floor!
#4 only include things that you want to include
Sure, you might be in a family that grew up doing things 'the traditional way' with expectations of first dances, cake cutting, and the classic sparkler send off. But if you're not into that - don't do it. Your wedding day should be composed of events that you value as important. If you're spouse feels awkward doing the garter toss - toss that out. Most people at the wedding won't even realize it didn't happen. If you don't want to spend $500 on a cake and would rather have a donut bar or ice cream sundaes --> do that! Nothing says you have to do things a certain way. Remember, this day is about Y O U not about aunt Sally who has a louder opinion than she should!
#5 Make sure all your vendors have the same schedule
It seems like this would be an easy one, but it doesn't always happen. Make sure your vendors all have the exact same version of the final schedule. If one person has an earlier version, it can mess up up the flow of the day! Make sure everybody has all the information they need to help the day flow. Also send a reminder to anybody you'll need to arrive early (for photos) and you can even tell them to arrive 15 min earlier than you actually need them to be there. It doesn't hurt for them to be early! ;)
wedding day sample timeline
8:30 AM: Hair/make up starts for bridesmaids
10:45 AM: Bride hair begins
12:00 PM: Bride make up begins
1:00 PM: Photo/Video coverage begins (both bride & groom get ready photos)
1:30 PM: Bride in dress + final photos
2:00 PM: First Look + Private Vows + Photos
3:00 PM: Bridal party photos
3:45 PM: Family Photos
4:30 PM: Photos complete and hang before ceremony
4:30 PM: DJ starts music
5:00 PM: CEREMONY
5:30 PM: Cocktail Hour / newlywed photos
6:10 PM: Bride and groom get 15 min of privacy
6:15 PM: Guests head into reception and find tables
6:30 PM: Wedding Party Entrance
6:45 PM: Newlywed First Dance & Welcome Remarks
7:00 PM: Buffet Opens -- **Bride/groom quickly run out for sunset photos
7:45 PM: Toasts (Parents, Best Man, MOH)
8:00 PM: Mother Son / Mother Daughter
8:10 PM: Photo Booth opens (2 hour run time)
9:00 PM: Photo coverage ends
9:45 PM: Late night snacks (chicken tenders and fries)
10:30 PM: Bar closes
11:00 PM: DJ / Reception Ends -- last dance
11:15 PM: Clean up crew