The vital artery that brings Ocean City to life is a wooden Boardwalk that traces 2 1/2 miles of Atlantic Ocean beach, ushering throngs of vacationers past an array of T-shirts, treats and amusements.

It is home to joggers and bikers, to sun worshippers and to the boardwalk tram. It carries visitors to the arcades, the cotton candy and the sea.

By most accounts, the Boardwalk is the town's most important economic asset - after the ocean.

"The Boardwalk is the first or second main attraction here," said Bill Gibbs, owner of the Dough Roller restaurants. "Everyone likes to walk the Boardwalk. I think so many people have come to Ocean City and enjoyed the Boardwalk that they want to bring their children back. That's why we thrive."

The town spends about $500,000 a year to keep its treasure clean and maintained.

Recently, Ocean City received an unexpected reward for its efforts when the attraction was featured on the Travel Channel program America's Favorite Boardwalks, which also covered those of Coney Island, N.Y., Venice Beach/Santa Monica, Calif., Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Atlantic City, N.J. The program praised Ocean City for having a beautiful beach and a rich tradition, and for offering fun for the whole family.

"As soon as that aired, we were getting calls and e-mails from people who either never had been here and wanted to visit or who hadn't been in years," said Donna Abbott, a spokeswoman for the town's tourism office.

Jim Futrell, historian for the National Amusement Park Historical Association and author of two books on amusement parks, says Ocean City's Boardwalk is one of his favorites.

"There's a nice balance in Ocean City," Futrell said of the Boardwalk, which was extended to its current length in 1962. "It has that carnival, honky-tonk atmosphere, but it's not overwhelming."

Trimper Rides and Amusements is a key part of the Boardwalk's appeal, he said.

"It's like a living museum of antique kiddie rides," Futrell said. "They all look like they were uncrated yesterday. They're so well maintained."

Every boardwalk has its personality, with intangibles that defy simple explanation, he said.

"It has a really nice atmosphere," Futrell said of Ocean City's Boardwalk. "It's one of the cleaner boardwalks I've seen. It's well maintained."

At the forefront of the town's first line of defense against trash are maintenance personnel such as Kendall Briddell and Cliff Stuart. They've seen it all, from clothes to jewelry to knives to the Halloween skull that someone discarded.

"Our job is when people make a mess to clean it up," said Briddell, who has worked for the town for about five years. "It's supposed to be a family resort, and we try to do our best to keep it clean."

Nearly all of the cleaning is done early each morning, long before vacationers hit the beach.

"We treat this as if it's our home," said Stuart. "Then we try to get out of the way so they can enjoy it. They really don't know what goes into this."

Sometimes crewmembers wonder whether items were discarded by mistake.

Within a few minutes one recent morning, they had found a wedding band with multiple diamonds, an ornate, ceramic dragon and unopened sunglasses.