How to Plan a Fun Wedding Reception

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A bride and groom share a romantic dance, captured in wedding photography, surrounded by guests and bathed in warm, glowing light at their evening wedding reception.

Wedding planning can be a challenge overall, but one of the most common questions we get is about planning a wedding reception. Wedding receptions can include many different traditions, events, and games. The goal of this blog post is to share an overview of the most common traditions so you can decide what works best for your reception. We’ve tried to list them in usual order of occurrence to help you sculpt your reception timeline.

Cocktail Hour

Cocktail hour is the entertainment that takes place between the wedding ceremony and the reception. Often during cocktail hour, especially if the wedding plans don’t include a first look, the couple will be off with the photographer to do photos while guests move toward the reception hall.

Specialty cocktails, hor d’oeuvres, and a curated mood will help ease guests from the formal ceremony to the celebration.

Couple’s Grand Entrance to the Reception

Once the couple is done working with the photographer, it’s time for them to enter the reception! At this point, guests are typically seated and enjoying appetizers, starters, and drinks.

The entrance usually includes an announcement from the DJ and upbeat music. Some couples choose to include introductions of the bridal party as well to honor their friends and build anticipation for their big entrance.

First Dances

First dances are way to celebrate bonds between parents and their now-married children. They usually take place immediately following the grand entrance but can also be put off until after toasts and speeches. Traditionally, the bride and groom share a dance followed by the bride and her father and then the groom and his mother.

This format is not always possible or reasonable depending on if parents are present and if you and your partner want to follow the traditional way. There are endless combinations of dances if you want to do something different. Dances with grandparents, siblings, or even a parental figure can stand in when dances with parents aren’t an option. Gender roles can be switched up as well for LGBTQ+ couples.

Dance with mom, dad, friends, family or just your partner. Up to you!

Wedding Reception Dinner

Moving into dinner is always exciting. (We love food.) It’s probably also the first time the couple is able to really sit down and enjoy a meal together. Usually dinner is happening up until cake cutting.

You have a few options for dinner. Buffet-style lines with catering staff serving portions are a popular option. Full-service dinner (like at a restaurant) is common as well but will be more expensive. More casual or intimate weddings may benefit from self-serve stations.

Reception Toasts & Speeches

Best man and maid of honor speeches are traditionally a highlight of wedding receptions, but they aren’t always the only speeches. Many times parents (particularly father of the bride) will deliver a welcome speech. It’s also possible for more bridal party members to offer words of encouragement, congratulations, and a few solid roasts if they haven’t already done so at the rehearsal dinner.

These speeches commonly happen while guests are still eating. The couple is usually served before anyone else, and speeches can commence once the newlyweds are finished eating. We find this works best because it provides entertainment during the meal and doesn’t take up time from the rest of the guests’ experience. It also ensures the photographer doesn’t capture a speech reaction shot while the couple is eating.

Cake Cutting & Couple’s Champagne

Soon after dinner is complete, it is time to cut the wedding cake! This is most often the last big event before the DJ opens the dance floor. You can use special serveware to cut the first slice. Popular options are engraved cake servers or heirloom champagne glasses.

The couple will traditionally share bites of cake and sips of champagne. And sometimes it gets a little messy. (Be sure you’re on the same page about smushing cake in each other’s faces! No one likes to be surprised by a face full of frosting.)

Bouquet & Garter Toss

We see these traditional games less and less. About half the time, couples will opt out of the bouquet and garter toss. The other half of the time, we have a lot of fun watching all the unmarried folks battling it out over the coveted prizes.

These activities happen after guests have been on the dance floor for a while, towards the end of the night. The tosses are great for breaking up lulls in a reception and keeping things moving a fun pace.

Bonus: Modern Wedding Reception Games

Bouquet Toss Alternatives

Many couples are replacing the traditional bouquet with a “breakaway bouquet”. The bride poises to toss the bouquet like normal but doesn’t tell the contestants that the bouquet is actually several small bouquets or loose flowers so everyone can feel included.

Shoe Game

During this Newlyweds-inspired indoor game, the couple sits in chairs, back to back, on the dance floor and answer trivia about their new spouse. They remove their shoes and give one of them to the other person. With one of their shoes in one hand and their spouse’s shoe in the other, the newlyweds listen to the DJ list off facts or questions about the relationship. The couple holds up the person’s shoe who most matches with the statement.

Anniversary Dance

For this fun and touching activity, the DJ invites all married couples onto the dance floor to share a slow dance with the newly married couple. The newlyweds stay on the dance floor as the DJ dismisses from the dance floor couples who’ve been married less than 1 year, then 5 years, then 10 years, and so on.

Eventually, the newlyweds will be left dancing with the longest married couple at the reception — usually a set of grandparents. The DJ honors them with a round of applause and give them the opportunity to give the bride and groom advice on being married. Sometimes they are presented with a special bouquet, corsage, or playful crown.

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