I take my 23 month old DD to Disney frequently - usually about once a week. We haven't been since the end of June because of the summer crowds, but starting in August, we'll probably start going back regularly.
I've been to all of the other parks in SoCal (Magic Mountain, Knott's, Sea World, Universal, etc.) and none of them even come close. Disneyland is just such an experience. It's clean, the castmembers are friendly, and it's just magical. It is really expensive to get in, but if you can afford to do it, IMO, it is worth the expense. There is so much more to the park than just the rides. The shows and parades are excellent. The new fireworks show is simply amazing. I've seen it a million times now, but each time I'm still just blown away by it. There's also Fantasmic, which is a great live action/pyrotechnic type show, complete with projection screens made out of water. There's also a new Snow White musical, which is supposed to be really good, like Broadway quality, and rumor has it that once the show is done running in the park, that they're going to send it to Broadway.
There are lots of old favorites, and even if you don't like Disney characters, it's easy enough to avoid them, because they usually only stay in certain areas, like Main Street. This year, Disneyland has also added quests, which are really fun (and free!). You go to a booth and pick up a quest, and it asks questions about certain things in the park. You go around the park to get the answers for your quest, and when you complete it, you get a small gift.
As far as the food, yeah, most of it is really junky. You can find healthier options, like pastas, salads, and sandwiches if you don't want to eat burgers and fries. We always bring our own food. You can rent a locker for $5 and store a small cooler, which is what we usually do.
The DL hotels are expensive, but worth it if you can afford it. A lot of times, hotel guests get early entry into the park, so you can be there an hour or two before the gates open. It gets you on rides faster.
If you go, I recommend going during the off season in the middle of the week. Usually during off season, the park closes early during the week - at around 7:00 or so, but it works out perfectly because there aren't many crowds, so by 7:00, you've done everything that there is to do.
Christmas is also neat at DL. They have "snow" with the fireworks, and a lot of seasonal treats, like peppermint ice cream. The park is always decorated for the holidays, and it's really beautiful.
As for the rides all having stores at the exits, that's really not true. Space Mountain and Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters are the only 2 rides that exit into gift shops. There is a small toy store near the exit at Small World, but you don't have to go into the shop to exit. So other than those two, there are no rides that force you to exit through gift shops.